In the course of an hour-long chat Chris Lewis laughs often, and with an impressively wide range and depth. There are regular gurgling chuckles and the odd outright guffaw. When talk turns to the chatter around Jofra Archer – most recently comments from the former England captain Michael Vaughan about Archer’s suitability for Test cricket – the laugh is more of a knowing sigh.
Lewis was the eighth British cricketer born in the West Indies to play for England (ninth if you count that renowned Trinidadian Lord Harris). He took 159 international wickets over eight years, in 1993 scored a Test hundred in Madras (now Chennai) and opened the bowling in the last England team to reach a World Cup final, before Archer’s lot did the same two years ago.
And yet there was always chat with Lewis, too. The English media, happy to wave though the beery-barbecues-with-Beefy stuff, always seemed a little less blase about a lively young black man from a London comprehensive, who never had a coach, who taught himself to bowl fast after being “smashed around by a burly chap” playing club cricket as a teenager. From his debut series, aged 22, Lewis found himself being accused of being “mentally flaky”, a loner, insufficiently committed and various other well-worn outsider tropes.
Lewis hears an echo of this in the recurrent whispers about Archer’s hunger, his will, the “fire in his belly”.
“When I was playing it was astonishing to hear people involved in cricket suggesting West Indians who played for England didn’t try,” he says. “It’s like suggesting that somehow you’re a different kind of human, or you don’t want it as much. You smile and try to brush it off, but those things eat away at you inside. It makes you think people think you are, I wouldn’t say subhuman, but it wears you down. It was also a time back then when if you raised things like that people would just say you’re a troublemaker.
“I still pick up hints of it with somebody like Jofra. There is a tendency to think somehow people can get to international cricket without putting in work. The idea seems to be you’ve got to bowl 90mph-plus every day – and if you don’t you’re not trying because to bowl 90mph-plus is very easy. So clearly you must be a lazy bugger.
“Not everyone prepares in the same way, or acts in the same way. I would suggest it’s even harder to get to where Jofra is [when you consider] where he has come from, because he hasn’t had all that information, all that coaching. In fact, the way he has got to where he is now is something that should be studied and tapped into more.”
The route from outside to inside, the narrowing of the pathway: it is a recurrent conversation in English cricket right now. One of the reasons for talking to Lewis is his own renewed interest in the London Cricket College. The college was founded in 1984 as Haringey Cricket College. The idea came, it is said, from a local councillor on his bus to work struck by the sight of local kids playing scratch games of cricket.
Haringey was an outstanding success before its funding was pulled in 2000. Run on tight margins and strong leadership, the college produced 25 future professional cricketers from its mainly black intake. How the England and Wales Cricket Board, hurling funds around hopefully at projects that might lend some sense of ready-made urban outreach, would love to latch on to something similar now.
“The obvious ones were Mark Alleyne, Frankie Griffiths, Courtney Ricketts, Keith Piper, Adrian Rollins, Carl Greenidge,” Lewis says. “My involvement with Haringey is I knew most of the guys and I used to go and train there on a regular basis. Counties didn’t have their own academies then and Yorkshire actually came down to study how Haringey were doing this.
“How is that not worthwhile? If you’re serious about inclusivity how is that idea not preserved and pursued? The ECB say: ‘We are into inclusion, we want to give something back.’ Well, you had something that worked, here’s the template and all the successful graduates are around now, willing to put their time in.”
A match is being arranged in celebration of the college, with talk Surrey might be willing to lend the Oval. Lewis, a slim and youthful looking 53 these days, will be playing. The game and the cause are a reminder of just how precarious that route into sport can be. Lewis hadn’t worn a pair of batting gloves before he got to Willesden high school, where he entered a sports programme run by a few committed teachers. Willesden high also produced Luther Blissett, Dave Beasant and Phillip De Freitas, who lined up with Lewis in that 1992 World Cup final (two black players from the same comprehensive school in an England team: will it ever happen again?).
“I feel immensely proud about my path. As a young boy coming to the country, going to the school I did, and going on to play for England, I think it’s a brilliant thing. But it should and could be vastly more commonplace. For me it wasn’t a pathway, it was hope and a prayer. I played cricket because I loved cricket. I was at Lord’s just having some nets and Ken Higgs happened to see me and thought I had something. A few months later I was at Leicestershire playing with David Gower and Ken is telling me one day I will play for England.”
England was another winding road. Lewis was dropped eight times in his 32-Test career, despite averaging 30 with bat and ball 10 games in, and despite being very clearly a talented player in need of a little care.
“Being in and out of the team was a part of my expectation. Before a Test match Devon [Malcolm] and I used to go out and have something to drink and wish one another the best. We felt that if things went wrong the chances are it will be one of us who got it. We were the easy option. We had no voice to say anything back.
“You can look back from here and certainly during the 90s there’s so much you could have done differently, so much where you could have tried to have more understanding.”
This extends to his own coverage in the media in his early 20s, when he was portrayed by some media outlets, and some correspondents, as an entirely feckless figure. “At the beginning I screamed and shouted a lot: ‘No, no, no, that’s not fair.’ But I came to realise that it just goes where it’s going. The language used about me throughout my career tended to paint a particular picture of a person. There are so many stereotypes that go with people of colour. I see it in the way people might make a comment about Jofra, in the way Moeen [Ali] has been described.”
If Lewis speaks with passion about these things, it is in part because he simply loves the game. “I watch a lot of cricket. There is a part of me that really enjoys being a spectator. I played cricket and I had my issues but I look at it now and I just see the enjoyment I had, the pleasure of playing cricket. It’s something I did since I was a little boy. And the truth is – I like it! I would have absolutely loved T20. You get to bat, you get to bowl and to field and even to dance while you’re doing it. It’s all my favourite things rolled into one. It’s a space where people can express their cricketing identity so much more than when I played.”
When he watches those T20 leagues, is there a player out there who reminds him of the Chris Lewis – stunning fielder, rapid bowler, aggressive hitter – we might have seen had the timelines overlapped? The laugh is rueful this time. “I’m not sure I’d want to curse anyone with those words.”
This is, of course, the unspoken subtext to any conversation with a man who served six years in prison for smuggling cocaine after being arrested getting off a flight from St Lucia in December 2008. “Any sense of feeling part of that world [cricket] ended when I went to jail.
“There are people who have stayed in contact, an obvious one would be Devon. And I will happily talk about it wherever I am, the lessons I learned about keeping going, about having dreams even when life is difficult. But there are doors that are just closed to me now. Having an ex-con around is not the greatest PR story.
“There was a lot of fear, a lot of doubt, being in jail for that length of time, the effect of what I had done. In those situations you have to come out the other side, otherwise you can stay haunted by so many things. I know it would be hard to ask people to forget. It is a choice that was made over a decade ago. But you never really get away from it, as much as you want to go back in time and scrub that out. Ultimately you just have to start again.”
What Lewis does have are some indelible memories of the great times. Two things stand out. The first is the obvious one. “When I started playing cricket I couldn’t bowl, all I wanted was to be Viv Richards. I became a bowling all-rounder. But I had one day in the sun and that was in Madras, as it was, where I scored my one and only Test hundred. That was a beautiful day.
“I was in a bubble. I remember only two thoughts. One was at the beginning before I faced a ball. The next thing I can remember is being on 95 and trying to decide whether I was going to get to the 100 in ones or keep going the way I got there. I would say there was just an absence of thought, I played on impulse. I also had a bit of advice from Mohammad Azharuddin. There was a lot of bat and pad play from England. I remember Azharuddin telling me I shouldn’t do that, I should actually try to hit the ball. That really helped.”
The other moment is his England debut in 1990 against West Indies in Trinidad, a significant peg in itself given the reception he would receive from some quarters. “There were so many emotions. The fact that I was playing for England took me back to being a young boy in the Caribbean and making a wish about going to England to play cricket. It was a very, very proud day, even reliving it now brings up the emotions. I never thought I would play for England. I just kept on hoping. And I got there.”