Tony Lewis © Getty Images
Tony Lewis © Getty Images

Tony Lewis, born July 6, 1938, was the last captain to lead England on his debut. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the life and career of this cricketer of limited success but infinite charm.

A memorable debut

Christmas Eve, 1972. It was a tricky situation when Tony Lewis walked in to bat in the second innings of his debut Test. Requiring 207 to win in the fourth innings England were 76 for 3. Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar were making the ball bite and turn. Both were charged up. Bedi had just captured his 100th Test wicket, and Chandra had scalped 8 in the first innings. It was one of those tricky subcontinent targets which have so often spelt doom for touring teams.

For Lewis the whole situation was tinged with a sense of unreality. As a Welshman, he was bemused at playing for England, forever considered the opponents. Additionally, he was leading the side. With a First-Class career of almost 17 years behind him, he had seldom been talked of as Test match material — but for a brief while in 1966 when he had topped 2000 runs in the summer. But, England had been full of mighty middle-order men. He had continued to lead Glamorgan and his batting had remained a more elegant version of the useful county cricketer. It was only when Ray Illingworth ruled himself out of the tour to India and Pakistan that he had been called up as the captain.

As he had geared up for the Test match at Delhi, there had been a scare. While playing a tour match at Indore, he had pulled a tiny muscle in the middle of the calf. Physio Bernard Thomas had strapped his leg from ankle to knee, and had put layers of rubber padding under his sole. Vice-captain Mike Denness had been asked to be ready to take on the mantle. Somehow he had passed the fitness test.

And then there had been the second-ball duck in the first innings. Chandra had been bowling googlies, and seeing one pitch outside the off-stump Lewis had gone for the sweep. The ball had struck him quite a bit outside the off-stump, and he had been given out. It had been a bad decision, but the zero had nevertheless registered against his name. But, aided by thorough homework, England had fought hard. The swing of Geoff Arnold and the spin of Derek Underwood and Pat Pocock had restricted a somewhat overconfident Indian batting side.

Now, with the match tantalisingly balanced, Lewis came out, a bundle of nerves. He managed to survive till the end of the day, remaining unbeaten on 17. The Sunday night was spent largely without sleep, tossing and turning in trepidation.

The Christmas morning started badly. Barry Wood was caught by Solkar off Bedi after the addition of just one run. Lewis was joined at the wicket by Tony Greig. The captain himself continued to be edgy, remaining scoreless for 6 overs before a scrambled single to mid-off. Greig used his reach to smother the spin and milk the bowling with time, Lewis started wielding his bat with some amount of confidence.

He was used to spinning tracks in Glamorgan. Besides, he had toured Pakistan in 1967-68 with a Commonwealth side led by Richie Benaud, and had scored 477 runs at 68.14. The experience in these parts had been a factor in his being appointed skipper. Now, Lewis started to nudge and push for runs along with Greig, without fuss or flourish. The target was reached in two hours. Lewis remained unbeaten on 70, rounding off a fantastic debut and the merriest of Christmas Days. It was the first time England had won in India since 1951.

My dear uncle Lewis-Sahib

It did not continue in the same fairy-tale vein for the man from Swansea. The Indian spinners soon turned things around, bowling the home team to victory in the next 2 Tests. Lewis managed scores of 4, 3, 4 and 11. He did come good with 125 in Kanpur, his only Test hundred. But, India won the series 2-1 and his collection of 234 runs at 33.43 was no more than modest. Yet, as a captain on a tour with plenty of diplomatic trappings, he went about his job splendidly.

Marvellously civil, genteel and humorous, he was much loved by his men and the cricket fans of India. Five hundred autographs per day was the norm for even the visiting net bowler, exponentially more for the captain. Lewis would always oblige, signing his name over and over again, late into the night.

In Long Days Late Nights, Frank Keating tells the story of the man at Kanpur. He knocked on the door of the England captain each hour of the day prior to the Test match, with the recurrent request, “My dear uncle Lewis-sahib, please sign these sheets of paper for my big and beloved family.” Lewis took absorbed all the intrusion with a smile and put down AR Lewis on each proffered piece. By the second day of the Test match, a perplexed gate attendant at the venue approached him. Every sheet he had signed had been topped and tailed with the typewritten legend: “Please admit to Test Match. Signed. AR Lewis. Captain of England.”

The old world gentleman captain

With the withdrawal of Illingworth, the selectors had perhaps been looking for a captain who had originally played as an amateur, much in the MJK Smith mould. They found the perfect candidate in Lewis. Additionally, as mentioned, he also had some excellent experience in the subcontinent from the 1967-68 tour.

A grammar schoolboy, Lewis had been a double blue at Cambridge — cricket and rugby —  in the process becoming an honorary gentleman. Extremely likeable, he was already a legend in Wales, and would go on to hold almost every position of prestige that the country had to offer. From serving as the captain of Glamorgan to being appointed the chairman of the Welsh National Opera and the Welsh Tourist Board, he had been bestowed with every possible honour. As he later stated, he had performed every voluntary role in Glamorgan except cutting the grass.

The one thing that had eluded him for long, and perhaps had not even featured in his serious ambitions, was the opportunity to play Test cricket. A First-Class batting average of 32 is quite eloquent about the reasons why. However, he did emanate the old-world charm of the amateur captains of the past, and would be the last person to captain England on his debut.

He did have strong credentials as a leader if not as a batsman. Lewis had led Glamorgan from 1967 to 1972, and it was under his stewardship that the county won the second championship in 1969.

The infectious amiable humour with which he approached captaincy was evident from that famous day when Garry Sobers walked out for Nottinghamshire and struck Malcolm Nash for six sixes at Swansea in 1968. Nash, who played most of his cricket as a left-arm medium pacer, said to The Guardian in 2008: “The captain asked me if I fancied having a go at bowling some slow-left armers. Sobers came along and quickly ended my slow-bowling career. It was a pretty short experiment.”

After the third ball had disappeared, Lewis had approached the bowler saying, “If you want to go back to the usual stuff and whack it in the block-hole, that’s fine with me.” But, by then Nash was too far gone. Lewis later reflected with typical light-hearted joviality: “Nash believed if he tried the Underwood style, he could top the averages.”

Tony Lewis in action for Glamorgan © Getty Images
Tony Lewis in action for Glamorgan © Getty Images

The Pakistan leg of the 1972-73 tour ended in a stalemate, the sides playing out 3 rather tedious draws. Lewis did score a couple of half centuries and managed an average of 43.80. His 8 Tests as captain ended as Illingworth returned from his self-imposed exile for the following summer.

Lewis had won one and lost two of the Tests, which was not too bad on a long arduous trip to the sub-continent. Besides, England were handicapped by the absence of Geoff Boycott, who had declined the tour invitation for ‘personal and domestic reasons.’ There had been speculations that his decision had been motivated by the resentment against Lewis’ appointment. Lewis later said, “There is no doubt that with him we would have won the series [in India]. We were bowled out for 163 in the second Test on a real shirt-front when set only 191 to win. Boycs would have got us through that.”

The end of playing days

The English selectors had been sufficiently impressed by his batting and he was chosen as vice-captain to Illingworth for the home series against New Zealand in 1973. However, his limitations as a Test batsman were exposed as Bruce Taylor got him caught behind for 2 in each innings at Trent Bridge. In the match, he was also somewhat unjustly criticised by someone who would soon become his colleague in the commentary box — Jim Laker.

“Lewis has put down a catch at long-on,” the Surrey legend phlegmatically remarked over the microphone when the Glamorgan man had hared along the fence and made a desperate lunge to get to the ball. Lewis later remarked that he had raced around the boundary almost 150 yards and had snapped two fingernails before plunging into the crowd. It scarcely entered the category of a chance. Laker did not mention anything about the athleticism of the chase. Lewis gingerly challenged the famous off-spinner, saying, “You’re a hard man, Jim.” Strangely, in his nine Test matches Lewis did not hold a catch.

This Test ended the international career of Tony Lewis. There were chronic knee problems, and when he was asked to make himself available for the 1973-74 series in West Indies, Lewis declined, taking up offers of writing and broadcasting instead. He had been writing reports on Rugby for Daily Telegraph since 1965.

The 457 runs at 32.64 did not really blaze the pitches, but his pleasant personality and perennial charm made him enormously popular. And it stood him in good stead during his broadcasting days.

Neat and crisp parting

Initially Lewis joined Test Match Special as a summariser, but with the need for extra commentators to cover the 1979 World Cup, he made the transition to ball-by-ball broadcasting. He soon graduated to the role as the frontman for BBC television cricket coverage, succeeding Peter West. A superb piece for an end-of-year sports programme led to his becoming the first presenter of the Saturday Morning Radio 4 programme, Sport on 4.

On television, his astute analysis was enhanced by his penchant for being meticulously groomed, with a neat and crisp parting in his jet black hair. He also impressed one and all with his ability to put his feet up on a sofa and snatch a cat nap at the slightest opportunity.

Among his many Welsh portfolios, Lewis was also made chairman of the successful Wales Ryder Cup Bid 2010 and served as High Sheriff of Mid-Glamorgan in 1998. He was also a member of the MCC Committee until 2011, served the MCC Millennium as president from 1998 to 2000, and chaired MCC’s World Cricket Committee from 2006 to 2011. In 2011 the he was made the 31st Honorary Life Vice-President of MCC.

In 2004, he was awarded the CBE for services to cricket, broadcasting and Wales.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)