Chris Lewis: Back from a Private Hell

Indians knew Chris Lewis for the ton he hit on his 25th birthday in Madras on England's tour in 1993. The man oozing athletic talent looked poised for the big time, but the promise never materialised. Years later, Lewis was caught smuggling cocaine and sent to prison.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: September 16, 2018 9:49:49 am
Chris Lewis was arrested on May 2009 for smuggling cocaine hidden inside a bag filled with fruit cans.

“You are sitting there in jail. 24 hours, day and night, you are consumed by your own thoughts. All negative. Self-pity. Blame game. Fear. Why is it happening to me? What was I thinking? What am I going to do now? Constantly it’s churning inside. There is no rest. You get really really really tired over weeks and months. Literally, you are torturing yourself. You are living in this 24 hour prison of your own making. Not a single positive thought pops in. You become very very tired. The mind won’t stop. You shout at it to stop but it doesn’t. No rest. You are looking at things but you are not really looking, you know what I mean?” Chris Lewis looks up at you and realises you don’t actually know what he means. It’s a private hell that only people like him, who have experienced, can understand. All one can do is nod the head and stay silent, listen to what he went through for six and half years of confinement in a prison, which is actually half his original sentence for trying to smuggle liquid cocaine worth 140,000 pounds into England from St Lucia.

It’s a surprise how well he has held himself together. There is a remarkable lightness, a clarity of thought, no self-pity, an understanding of his own culpability in how his life shaped, a great willingness to change. He laughs a lot, often self-depracatingly and tells a hilarious story about that 1992 World Cup ball from Wasim Akram but to appreciate the light at the end of the tunnel, we need to first stumble into the darkness.

On December 5, 2008, Lewis walked in with a Prada man’s handbag and a cricket bag filled with cans of fruit and juice. The cans smelt of chemicals and held dissolved 3.75 kgs of cocaine which came to light after a security officer stopped him. “I remember being stopped and then it was a blur. I don’t remember his face now. I haven’t gone to that place again, no use revisiting that episode again, right?”

He was moved across different jails. Mostly at remote places, far away from civilisation. “You could see light, the sky if you craned out of the window in the room sometimes.” Was there a corner or some space where he would retreat? Any physical real estate of comfort? “No man. Imagine living in a house with 1000 people. Where will you spend most of the time? In your room. That’s the only space you can potentially control. But then you had to contend with what’s swirling in your head.”

We are sitting in a restaurant outside Queens Park station. London voices buzz around us. Of domestic bliss, about restaurant specials, sweet nothings in relationships, the weather, the rain, and plans for the evening. There is a lot of laughter. Lewis jerks up and looks around him. Outside the window, a light pitter patter of rain.

Inside the jail, self-pity raged in him. “The problem with that is it doesn’t take the pain away. You understand that?” And he smiles. “This is about your wellbeing. Deep inside you know, it’s the same prison. Because you are still in pain. You can keep thinking you are in this crappy world where everybody does stuff to you but until you realise that you can actually do something about it, you are going to be chained.

“The first year was a milestone. The idea of six-and-half years seemed forever. It seemed endless. Once I had managed to do first year, I felt I can do another. Then another. I knew I could do it; only issue was that I didn’t want to do it. It was tough.”

The first year, he lived in mental chains. Until something, gradually, slowly, clicked inside. A realisation. “I realised that I have a choice in my life. That this stuff isn’t happening to me. I can choose to do this and that – and that I remember was a nice feeling. A moment of realising that you are living in a world where events aren’t happening to you but you actually appreciate that you are the orchestrator.”

Lewis comes from a religious family. What about him now, has he turned more religious or shed the faith crutch? “I wouldn’t certainly classify as religious anymore. But I believe in god. I am not in a place unless you are religious you don’t believe in god. Do I pray? It depends on people’s definition of praying. I am now at a place where my understanding is we are created with the ability to do anything you want if you put your mind to it. Prayer is more like thanksgiving. Thank you for what I am. I know I can do it if I put my mind to it. Rather than saying, I am nobody, can you help me do this, the actions become suddenly different.”

There is a Muslim saying, God willing, inshallah. I say to some of my Muslim friends, god is always willing, it’s actually the case of you being willing or not. God is always on your side. It’s about your willingness to get things done.”

He anticipates the next question and smiles as he says, “Where did all this understanding come from, eh? In jail, man. You have hours and hours of nothingness, emptiness.” Many turn depressive, but somehow, incredibly, Lewis has pulled himself through. “You realise you are on the wrong path and you gently pull yourself back.”

Endless hours of emptiness. Lewis joined courses: cooking, psychology, construction and to use his favourite turn of phrase that he sprinkles through the conversation, “so on and so forth”. Construction? “Something useful, constructive.” Cooking? “It was basic and I already knew cooking. But I joined because that meant I would get the chance to eat some good food!” Laughter.

One is interested in psychology of course. Did that give him all the wisdom and philosophical ruminations? “Nah, I quit it in six months. You know why? One day the teacher tells me that psychology poses more questions than answers. I went, really? People in prison want answers. We have enough questions, thank you. I left after that. The wisdom, if that’s the word, comes from sitting still, in your room, with your thoughts. Self-reflection kicks in.”

The most touching gesture came a few days after his release. He went for a walk in his neighbourhood in North-West London when he was stopped by people. “They would greet me, say hello and add, “Glad it’s over. You did your thing, you have served time, and we are glad that it’s all over for you now. All the best’ – those were the touching moments, stuff that makes you carry on.”

Lewis chats easily, about most things. Religion, politics, sports and sociology. Somehow the conversation went to national identity and he goes, “People have different views on this. Being British or English is an evolving thing. It’s always been evolving. Some people think it’s stagnant and hence have a problem with it. I think it’s been beautifully evolving and that’s why people who have dreams and hopes come to live in this country.”

When he first came, he says, he made a fundamental mistake of not being aware of the ethos of the place. “You have to be more aware of the environment where you are going. I wasn’t. You should know who are you with, they should also know who you are. Like behaviour: what would have been okay elsewhere, it isn’t the same here. I made mistakes.” Like going on fancy private cars instead of the team bus with his county teammates? He laughs. “Yes that.” Like missing the start of a Test match in 1996 by arriving late? Laughter.

Michael Atherton, his captain once wrote, “Here was the supreme athlete who underachieved; the intelligent man who more than once punctured a hole in his career through sheer stupidity; the warm, friendly face who was also a committed loner, for whom controversy was never far away.” Another team-mate Derek Pringle wrote: “Talented, narcissistic (he once posed naked in a magazine), frustrating, though never anything but unfailingly polite, Lewie, as he was then known, had the anti-social habit of ordering just about everything on the room-service menu, tasting a mouthful of each, and then leaving it to smell out the room.”

Lewis understands that he has mucked up in the past. And that people will continue to judge him – on cricket and his crime. He has made his peace with it. “I am more in the space where I am comfortable about people having judgments about me — cricket or anything else. I am in the space where people are entitled to do that. We all do it: we see something and feel whether we like it or not. That’s a natural process. I can let people get on with it… no use fighting it as people would do it regardless of what I think or hope. For me, the important thing is to see where I want to be. There have been errors – glaring ones at that and I accept that. Having done that, I think I need to look ahead instead of ruing about the past.”

Lewis gets up early, by 6 am. “A leftover from prison life.” He hits the gym and starts his day. “It can include different things. It could be coaching or it could talk in different parts of the country.” He goes to schools, clubs, community programs, disadvantaged kids, talking about his experience and how to get out of such mental hells in their lives. “It’s about letting them know that they have a choice. That they don’t have to slip into drugs or depression. That they can do something about it. It’s so rewarding to help out people. I am happy that my experience can be of some real use to someone out there. If I can stop someone from sliding into negativity…”

A play based on his story, directed by his friend, is coming out next April. “It will track my journey from despair to lightness and hope. At the end of the play, I will do a QnA. We plan to take it around the country. Rehearsals are on now.”

At times his days would be him surrounded with his nephews and nieces. “Some of them are 10. I missed most of their early years. I try to make up now. It’s getting used to people, building new relationships with young people – its an exciting time. I couldn’t say I am a better person. I am more aware – and being aware doesn’t make a better person than anybody else. Being aware gives a possibility of bringing joy to your life and to others.”

Lewis hasn’t bowled a ball since he has come out. “Old injuries are playing up, hopefully by next year.” He plays for his club and for Lashings. He bats. “When I picked up a cricket bat for the first time, I felt totally alien at the crease. Rather than the instinctive thing it should be after playing for so many years. All of a sudden, thoughts come where you are placing your foot, where you are picking up your bat, you carrying so much luggage because you haven’t been doing it. But beyond that there is a familiarity in spending your time on the cricket field on Saturdays and it’s a familiarity that I like.”

A gentle full toss helped him put at ease. “It was my first four after I returned. A casual full toss, thank you very much. Doesn’t this young boy know?!”

The thing that troubled him the most was the feeling he had let down his mother. “You don’t want your mother upset, you know that you have disappointed and the disgrace of what you have done may last forever is an interesting emotion. It’s a sad emotion. You hope that your mother understands what’s happened and the intention wasn’t there to start with. She had my back throughout. It’s family people who care about you. Yes, you did something that is inappropriate, bad and so forth, but before that they knew you for 40 years and knew a different you.”

How about that ball from Akram, Lewis? That devilish in-swinger in the 1992 World Cup. What happened there? Raucous laughter. “Here we are! We are 25 years on from the ball and I am still haunted! We knew Wasim’s abilities. I saw the ball tail in, just too late. I was going to leave it, but then the bat was already angled back and I was too late. The ball kept going. I wish I had won that match. It would have set me up: a World Cup winner. How many people can say that?”

“But I will tell you a fun story about that ball. I went to Pakistan in 2005 or ’06. We took a bunch of children to Lahore for coaching. I didn’t know that for a country I have never been to, I would be so famous! It turns out there was an advert running for many years. A rice advertisement. It shows Wasim Akram bowling me out! So everybody in Pakistan has seen that, and as I walk through, they go, ‘Chris Lewis Chris Lewis … Wasim Akram’. Everyone did that to me. What can I say, great times!”

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