He Listens to Soul and Reggae before Test Matches and Got His Kit off for a Women's Mag. Howzat? Pretty Enigmatic, since You Ask
thompson, ben, The Independent (London, England)
The Oval cricket ground is a walled castle of tranquillity in the middle of South London's urban sprawl. Pulling cheekily into the official Surrey CCC car park, you half expect to be summarily expelled by an ex- colonel with a blunderbuss, but instead a kind man in a suit points out a vacant space. At reception, a phone call to the dressing room to establish the whereabouts of the England star Chris Lewis elicits the genially imperious response: "This is he."
One of the country's most exciting cricketers, Lewis is now happily re- established in the national team after a year out of the game with a hip injury, and is finally threatening to lose the "enigma" tag that has dogged him throughout his career. Very tall and extremely well-dressed - his shaved head topped by an Armani skull-cap - Lewis explains why everyone's so friendly: "It's not like Lords, they let anyone in here," he smiles, "they let me in".
Through the window a Second XI game steadily unfolds to a crowd comprising three men, one woman, and a dog. It's a far cry from the extravagant spectacles of Olympiads and Euro 96, and this is exactly what a lot of people like about it. It comes as no surprise to discover that the dynamic Lewis is not a part of cricket's militant backwater tendency. "It's all right saying that we should keep tradition," he insists. "Yes we should, but do we keep it to such a large extent that the game itself actually dies? The problem is that cricket is in a dogfight with a lot of other sports. When I go back to the West Indies now, I meet kids who have never played cricket because they're too busy playing basketball or baseball, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago."
It's certainly a far cry from the cricket-saturated environment in which Lewis, now 28, grew up in Guyana in the Seventies. But when he left the care of his grandmother ("I think grans are brilliant - they basically let you do what you want") to join his father and mother in north west London at the age of 10, he was in for a bit of a shock. "I got here in February, and the first thing I realised was that cricket wasn't the centre of the world. 'Here I am, I know the best game in the world, and nobody is playing it.' I thought everyone was crazy." Fortunately a sporty secondary school - Willesden High, also home to fellow England veteran Phil Defreitas - put him back on track.
Lewis is worried that such places don't exist any more. "I've got an eight-year-old brother who loves cricket. I asked him why he didn't take his bat into school to practise in his lunch hour and he said he's not allowed - they're not allowed to take a football in either. I used to play every day, and if I hadn't done that I wouldn't be a cricketer today. I'm sure that's true of most of the current England team - and of the footballers too, for that matter - if we aren't allowing kids to develop their talents we're going to suffer as a nation. I think people have a tendency to take sport very lightly in this country with regard to its social importance - it's almost like a second thought, something you do for a laugh."
As affable as he is in person, Lewis looks very serious on the pitch. Does he enjoy the game's more confrontational aspects? "Sometimes, yes. Cricket is about so many things - not just ability, but your mental state and how you portray yourself - and when you're bowling at someone, making it a very personal thing can actually help you, because some people don't like those sorts of confrontations. To be honest I think I am a reasonable size, and if someone wants to challenge you, the alternatives are either to accept it or to back down, and I don't think my ego would allow me to back down."
Would he say he has quite a well-developed ego? "I would suggest that most sports people have, it's just that some are better at hiding it than others." Is he good at hiding his? "Generally yes, but I have moments when my friends would have to touch me and tell me to relax. …