"There's an expression in the Caribbean," Chris Lewis says. "'The man that can't hear is destined to feel.'" He sighs. "I guess I had to learn things the hard way."

Lewis had heard all the warnings, of course. He knew examples of former players who had fallen on hard times. He must, on a level, have understood the need to plan and prepare for life after his playing career.

But it ended earlier than he thought it would - it nearly always does - and the benefit season he was relying upon was suddenly snatched away from him. Without savings, plans or many transferable skills, he found himself with a creaking body, a lifestyle to sustain, a family to support, and all revenue streams evaporated.

The result? He made a poor choice.

As he recounts in his book Crazy: My Road to Redemption, he accepted £50,000 (which he never received) to import cocaine from St Lucia into the UK. "This would give me the breathing space I needed," he writes. "All I could think of was the idea of having no money and not being able to see a way out. I remember my thought at the time: just once, maybe, to make a bit of money and give myself a little bit of breathing space."

He was subsequently apprehended at Gatwick airport. He pleaded innocent - "I just couldn't stand the thought of going to jail," he says now - but was found guilty and sentenced to 13 years. He served six and a half. On the first night he considered hanging himself with his bed sheets.

Now he is out, but on the brink of his own half-century and with what he refers to as "a skills deficit", his future remains uncertain. At the back of his mind is the thought that, for all his success on a cricket pitch, he may well be remembered, first and foremost, as a convicted drug smuggler.

"That's a fact," he says. "I am a shamed cricketer. There's no point me denying it. I'd hate that to be the way I'm remembered, but the fact is, unless I change that perception, it's the way it's going to be. I can't moan about it. It is the consequence of my actions. I have to reflect on my choices and take the responsibility for them.

"But it's not the end of the story. I have it in me to write the next few chapters and I have to make sure that I take everything bad and turn it into something good. It's up to me to make sure the story has a better ending."

"I let down my family and my community. Having spoken out about every stereotype for years, the lie that suggests all young black men are drug dealers, here I was enforcing them"

It is one of Lewis' qualities that he makes no excuses for himself, whether he is talking of the criminal conviction, his infamously poor timekeeping - it cost him both his England place and the captaincy of Leicestershire - or the "prat without a hat" heatstroke incident in the Caribbean.

"Yes, of course there are reasons. But there are no excuses," he says now.

The only real regret is the drug smuggling. He sees the timekeeping issues, which effectively ended his England career at The Oval in 1996 (he overslept, pretended he had a puncture and arrived 90 minutes late, just before play on the fourth day of a Test against Pakistan), as "part of the learning experience".

"I look back on a lot of those mistakes and laugh," he says. "I was just a young bloke trying to fit too much into my life.

"When I was rushing to get to The Oval, I was desperately hoping someone would see the funny side. I knew I was out of line; I knew I was wrong. But I hoped they might, on a level, see that it wasn't exactly the crime of the century."

But surely, he can see that discipline is a necessary attribute of a professional sportsman? And how would he have managed him? He had a period as captain and enjoyed some success. Indeed, he captained Leicestershire for more than half the season when they won the County Championship in 1998.

"Oh, good question," he says. "I suppose I might have encouraged me to try and fit in a bit more.

"I didn't drink, I didn't like pub culture, and maybe because of that, I didn't form the bonds with my team-mates that I might have done. They never had much empathy for me because they never got to know me. I probably could have tried harder.

"I really enjoyed my time at Leicestershire and Surrey. But at Nottinghamshire, where I probably played the best cricket of my career, things weren't as easy."

Because he was black?

"Not necessarily. Because I was different. Maybe because they simply didn't like me. But my heritage, my background, my culture is all a part of what makes me me."

He accepts, though, that his issues with punctuality could "give an impression that I did not care about my sport" and that "my coaches and colleagues must have been tearing their hair out". But what still makes him wince in irritation is the suggestion that he was in any way lazy or over-reliant on his natural talent.

"None of it was natural," he says. "It was honed to a level that it may have appeared natural. Look, in the Caribbean, kids weren't allowed to play in the house. Your mum might have a couch that was meant to last a lifetime. That's why it was still covered in its plastic wrapper. She didn't really want you even sitting on it, let alone playing on it! So by the time I came to the UK, aged ten, I was probably more athletic than the typical ten-year-old in London.

"Then, later in my career, I was in the gym while others were still asleep. I was practising late at night. I was running on the streets at six o'clock in the morning. It suited other people's agendas to suggest I had this huge amount of natural talent, so they could imply I was lazy. I wasn't lazy and I wasn't naturally talented. I was just a bit different.

"I've found myself watching games and thought, 'Why doesn't he try harder?' But then I pull myself up. You can't tell. Just because someone is perceived as doing something with some style - batting like David Gower, for example - doesn't mean they find it easier. And it doesn't mean they don't have to try."

Lewis' belief is that the treatment of black players of his generation led them to advise their children not to follow the same path. It is an interesting theory that may have parallels with the ongoing issues in attracting cricketers of Asian origin, especially Muslims, into the traditional pathways that, at club level, often still revolve around a culture of bonding in pubs and bars.

"I can tell you for a fact, people I played with have told their kids not to bother," he says. "They always had to be a little bit better. Maybe things have changed, but that's how it felt then."

All of which makes his fall from grace harder to accept.

"I spent my career fighting stereotypes," he says. "I didn't just argue against the rhetoric that young black men from inner cities got involved in drugs or crime. I knew it was wrong. I knew it.

"And then I got involved in drugs smuggling." He shakes his head at the ridiculousness of the sentence he has just uttered. "Really, I let down my family and my community.

"And it wasn't just me who had their head in their hands. It was every black male in Britain. I let them all down. I can't downplay that. I can't shrug it off. I regret it not just because of what it did to my life, but because of the damage it did to my family and my community."

So how does he make it right? "I have to prevent other people making the same mistakes," he says. "Whether I'm talking to young cricketers, sportspeople, immigrants, kids in inner cities, or the community at large… I have to make them understand the dangers and [get them to] make better choices.

"Of course they've heard the stories, too. Of course they think 'It won't happen to me'; every generation does. But I have a story to tell, and if I can save one or two from the same fate, maybe I can make some amends."

"I was prepared for nobody in cricket wanting anything to do with me but it's been the other way around. It has given me a lot of energy"

He has already started. Ahead of the 2016 domestic season in England, Lewis travelled the first-class counties delivering a talk to county players about the dangers of failing to plan for their futures. He will soon appear on National Prison Radio, preaching similar messages to those who have already erred, while there is talk of his story being turned into a play, written by Dougie Blaxland (aka James Graham-Brown, the former Kent cricketer), who wrote one about Colin Milburn.

Lewis hopes, in time, to be invited into schools to address teenagers. "I just need a first headmaster to take a chance on me," he says. "I think I can make a positive contribution."

With few skills outside the game - "I took a few courses in prison," he says, - he has also returned to playing a bit of club cricket and represents Lashings. And a few weeks ago, he was invited to The Oval as part of Surrey's 100th Test celebrations. To his great relief, he was warmly received by everyone.

"It's funny," he says. "I did an interview with Mike Atherton the other day. I was a bit nervous. I felt like a naughty schoolboy going to see the headmaster. You know? Like he didn't really approve? I guess because he was my captain.

"But he was warm and friendly and we had a great time chatting about the old days. We had a good laugh.

"And that's the way it's been with everyone, really. I was prepared for nobody in cricket wanting anything to do with me, but it's been the other way around, really. It's given me a lot of energy."

Like many cricketers, Lewis has been grateful for the help from Jason Ratcliffe and the Professional Cricketers' Association. While Ratcliffe left his role at the PCA the best part of a year ago - he had been assistant chief executive - and the nature of these interventions demands a certain amount of privacy that prohibits coverage, it is no exaggeration to say they have been life-changing often and life-saving on occasions. Certainly Lewis, who received prison visits from Ratcliffe and continues to work with him now, has no doubts. "I'll never be able to thank him enough," he says.

There will be those who suggest Lewis is not deserving of the game's help. And it's a reasonable point: there are many former players who through no fault of their own are struggling financially. Might they be deemed more deserving?

But maybe that is the wrong way to think about it. The aim of involving Lewis now is not so much about rehabilitating him - though that doesn't seem such a terrible motivation - but using him in an educational capacity to prevent others making similar errors. It's worth noting, too, that he has received no "benevolent" funding from the PCA. He was briefly employed by them to travel the first-class counties, but there have been no handouts.

There's a striking passage in the book. In it Lewis suggests "the worst moment of my life" was not his arrest or even that first night in prison when he contemplated suicide. No, it came in a game towards the end of his career at Leicestershire, when the crowd booed him.

"Yes, that was the worst," he says. "It was very personal. Going to jail was awful but the immediate sentencing was impersonal. It was because I had broken the law. I'd been booed a few times. I was always booed at Yorkshire and in Kent. But I found that energising. I saw it as them perceiving me as a threat. But this was different. It was disdain. It was personal. And it was so unjust."

The reason? Lewis was, he says, contacted by match-fixers who wanted to involve him in corruption and claimed they already had three England players on board. Lewis wasn't interested, and knowing that he could be in trouble if he did not report the approach, did so to both the ECB and the police. In short, he did exactly what he was supposed to do in such circumstances. It later emerged that Stephen Fleming had reported the same businessman to the ICC within 48 hours of Lewis doing so to the ECB.

Somehow the information Lewis reported found its way into the media and Lewis was portrayed, by some, as an embittered troublemaker who wanted to drag a few down with him.

"I was thrown to the wolves," Lewis writes in his book. "I gave the ECB the ball and they absolutely f***** it up. The general feeling was that I had maliciously made up stories about England players being involved in match-fixing for some financial gain."

The results were catastrophic. Leicestershire stopped selecting him, knowing that there was a clause in his contract (inserted to protect them in case of injury) that stated he could be released if he did not play a certain number of games. Even though he had three years left on his contract and the promise of a benefit season, he left the club. He left the game (there was very brief comeback for Surrey in 2008, by which time he was 40 and, in his words, "a pie-thrower") as something of a pariah.

He will not say so - it could be interpreted as trying to make excuses for himself - but there might be a contributory element to his later struggles. It is no excuse, of course - lots of people experience serious financial setbacks without resorting to crime, and as he writes in his book, "I could have gone down to the dole office" - but there may be a lesson for cricket here. If the game is really serious about combating match-fixing, it must find a way to better protect and respect the whistle-blowers. The experience of Lewis, Don Topley, Ian Pont, Brendon McCullum and others would suggest there is a long way to go.

It is an oddity of Lewis' career that, for all the success - he played in a World Cup final (and was twice Man of the Match in the qualifying games), he made a Test century in India, he claimed three five-wicket hauls and won County Championships and Lord's finals - if you think about the two clips of him which are most repeated on TV now, one involves Wasim Akram bowling him out first ball with a peach of a delivery in the 1992 World Cup final, and the other shows Brian Lara pulling him for four to break the record for the highest Test score.

"He trod on his stumps," Lewis says. "When he played that shot, he trod on his stumps. The bails went up in the air but settled back in place.

"That stuff doesn't sit especially easily with me. If you are going to be involved in cricket records, you want to be setting them. Not having them set against you. Those are not the things that I look back with any particular fondness."

What does he look back on with fondness? "My debut," he says. "My ODI debut, in Trinidad. The emotion I had. The pride. The excitement of a boy who couldn't believe he'd made it so far. That was the pinnacle for me. I don't think that feeling was ever replicated."

During his playing career, Lewis was described, gloriously, as "the enigma with no variation" by Vic Marks. And it is probably true that his ability - that ability he worked so hard to achieve that it appeared natural - did not gain the rewards we thought it might have done. Unfulfilled? That would be harsh. But completely fulfilled? No, you can't claim that.

And here he is now: fallen, yes, but somehow impressive and motivated as never before. Still promising after all these years. Still full of potential. There's a line musicians use: there's no such thing as a wrong note; it's the next note you play that determines whether it was good or bad. The most important chapter in the Chris Lewis story is the next one.

"The question 'Who is the real Chris Lewis?' will be answered in actions rather than words," he says. "I choose to add more to my community, and never to make it lesser again."