Every England all-rounder of the past forty years has, at some point or other, been labelled as ‘the new Ian Botham.’ Chris Lewis, a Guyanese born seam bowler and middle-order batsman who played 32 Tests and 53 ODIs for England, was no different. But his story went down a very different path to that of Botham. In 2008, Lewis was stopped at Gatwick Airport with three cans of cocaine in his luggage. He was sentenced to thirteen years in prison.
During his first night in confinement, fearful and desperate, Lewis considered killing himself. He couldn’t understand how he had got himself in to a mess that would, in the end, rob him of six years of his life. It was a crime, the judge who sentenced him said, motivated by greed. But according to Lewis’s new book Crazy: My Road to Redemption, it was desperation, not greed, which drove him to take the path he had. Out of work with no money and no plan, 50,000 pounds for smuggling drugs seemed like a good deal.
That desperation had roots in the events which led to his career being cut short. Lewis, who played for Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Surrey, had received an approach by a match-fixer in a London convenience store. He did everything right – contacting the ECB and reporting the approach but Lewis was left angry and upset by the governing body’s handling of the situation. They made it look as if he had been hiding something.
According to Lewis, the stigma attached to him by the ECB’s mistake, one that the Police actually apologised to him for and which suggested he might have been involved in match-fixing himself, led to Leicestershire terminating his contract early, ostensibly because of a lack of game time. It was true that Lewis was coming to the end of his career but he could still do a job so the timing seemed strange. Whatever the reasons, with no income and no plan as to what he would do after cricket, Lewis found himself in a situation he couldn’t handle.
Prison was, as you would expect, a struggle. The impact on his family most concerned him and Lewis agonised about how he had let them down. He took jobs in prison as an anti-bullying representative and to help foreign prisoners navigate the landscape they found themselves in. It is revealing, perhaps, that Lewis wanted to help others at a time when he was feeling despair and panic himself.
It is a theme throughout the book. On a tour to New Zealand, Lewis had been rested and was watching the game on the TV from the hotel when Syd Lawrence, a bowler of real pace, horrifically tore his kneecap in his delivery stride. Lewis rushed down to the ground and went in the ambulance with Lawrence.
Lewis attempted to deal with his sentence with stoicism. “I had never considered myself weak” he says in the book and found ways to cope with the help of some friends such as former England player Robin Smith and his wife Kathy and former Surrey teammate Jason Ratcliffe. Working in the prison kitchen or gym, reading as much as he could, Lewis found those ways to cope. But his freedom and dignity had been taken.
Lewis was an excellent cricketer whose first-class batting average (30.73) was higher than his bowling average (29.88), the mark of a genuine all-rounder. He was part of England’s World Cup team in 1992 when they lost in the final in Pakistan and was good enough to score a Test hundred against India in Madras in 1993. At international level, he had his moments, including 6 for 111 against West Indies in 1991, but never quite cemented his place in the team or delivered on his talent.
That was not always his fault. Injuries hit and England’s selectors in the 1990s were more unpredictable than Donald Trump on Twitter but Lewis admits also causing some issues himself such as turning up late against Pakistan at the Oval in 1993. It was not that he didn’t care – far from it – but Lewis had his own ways of doing things. He liked to dance and to party, away from his teammates, and he socialised with his own group of friends.
This aroused suspicion in the deeply insular nature of English cricket at the time. Lewis was regarded as different, an outsider and accused of being lazy and unwilling to muck in with his fellow teammates. Some of his teammates at Nottinghamshire accused him of being gay. But Lewis couldn’t understand why those people were interested in him. Why couldn’t he just get on with his cricket and be left alone? He was on the front pages and he didn’t know why.
Crazy: My Road to Redemption is a revealing portrait of Lewis’s career and the aftermath and the effects the match-fixing suspicions and early termination of his contract had both financially and mentally. It is short on details as to how he got himself in the position to smuggle drugs and Lewis writes that he will leave his co-defendant in the trial “to tell his own story”. But it is an honest account of his life, his career and his prison sentence.
Thankfully, Lewis is now doing well and has rekindled his love of cricket, playing for Lashings, a team of past players who play exhibition matches. He doesn’t ask for sympathy nor forgiveness – others can judge whether he deserves any of either – but this book offers a glimpse into the reasons he made the decisions he did. It doesn’t, of course, excuse the crime he committed.
The book also highlights why the work of the Professional Cricketers Association (PCA) is so important in preparing players for the end of their careers and helping them with mental health issues. The PCA have been good to Lewis since his release – he has been hired to talk to young players – and he hopes their work can prevent someone else falling in to the same traps he did. Lewis’ story is a cautionary tale.