By Sam Dalling
England Lions head coach Jon Lewis hopes his evergreen love for the game will one day see him join cricket’s elite coaching club.
August will mark two-and-a-half decades since the then 19-year-old made Warwickshire’s Imran Khan his maiden red-ball professional scalp – the first of no fewer than 849 first-class victims.
The seamer would remain a permanent fixture on the county circuit for the best part of twenty years, before turning to help dreams become reality.
Following a successful spell on the backroom staff at Hove, Lewis made his first steps into the international arena when he took charge of the ECB’s U19 set-up in 2018.
When asked, Lewis was open about his desire to one day mix it with the world’s leading stars, but emphasised that for now it’s his love for the game that gets him out of bed in the morning.
“First and foremost, what I really enjoy is coaching,” he explained.
“I’m not that worried about where that is in terms of age range, but what I do love is coaching elite players.
“Wherever you work within the ECB pathway, you are working with the very best players at that stage of their journey.
“With the under 19s, I’m working with the elite group at that age range and helping to shape their future.
“I’ve done work with the Lions and they’re a fascinating group of people as they are so close to playing international cricket
“What I haven’t done yet is work with the cutting edge in international cricket.
“Whether it be for England or with another country, one day I’d love to move on and up if at all possible.”
Lewis is no stranger to the international scene, having turned out as a player for his country 16 times in the mid-noughties.
Following an impressive first outing in the T20I that got England’s 2005 summer up and running – Lewis snared no fewer than four of Australia’s top order, including a man who lined up alongside him on his first-class debut, Andrew Symonds – the former Swindon College pupil was given a watching brief as the historic Ashes series unfolded.
At one point it seemed the medium pacer was destined to be a perennial 12th man, before his persistence was finally rewarded with a test cap against Sri Lanka in 2016.
But despite a three-wicket haul on debut, the England management team went down a different path and the door was slammed shut on his test career.
Now though Lewis is charged with helping the county game’s leading starlet’s follow in his footsteps.
And the former Gloucestershire skipper admitted that his current gig is much wider than he’d anticipated, and involves treading a tightrope on a daily basis.
“It’s much broader than I thought it would be going into it, and there are lots of stakeholders involved,” he said.
“Each lad has school coaches, academy directors, second team coaches, directors of cricket, parents – all of whom want their say.
“My job is to try and keep everyone happy while at the same time focussing player development at the front and centre of my mind.
“It can be tough because we only have a limited amount of access to players. They spend the first half of the summer at school, rightly putting their education first.
“Then all of the cricket is squeezed into a small gap.
“It can be really tricky to get the balance and the staff have to do a lot of travelling around trying to influence counties, and help them grow their players.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Lewis and his backroom staff had begun preparations for a fresh cycle in the lifespan of the Young Lions.
The pinnacle for all youth internationals is the U19 World Cup, a competition that has acted as a springboard for many current global superstars including current icons Quinton de Kock, Virat Kolhi and Tim Southee.
Much of the focus in the two years between tournaments is on putting together a squad capable of launching an assault on the trophy.
But in many respects England are hamstrung by their set-up, with Lewis revealing that the sub-continental nations have a significant advantage when it comes to chasing glory.
“When you are there and in it you want to win it. That is the number one priority, and teaching players how to win games is incredibly important at that age.
“It is difficult though because the reality is that at any level of the game, the England side reflects the system.
“The sub-continent teams have their sides together full-time, 365 days a year for a few years before the tournament.
“They are playing with and against each other all the time, whereas our guys have constraints like winters spent in indoor nets and school work to compete with. You aren’t comparing apples with apples.
“We are constantly looking at ways to get better and close the gap – we are trying to find out who are best players are and who can cope with the pressure.”
Lewis represented Gloucestershire, Surrey and Sussex in a stellar 19 season county career.
Few can match the swing bowler’s tally of 1,078 wickets across all formats during a 16-year stint in the west country.
He also played a key part in the Bristol-based outfit that dominated domestic one-day cricket between 1999 and 2004 under the tutelage of John Bracewell and Mark Alleyne.
Fans of a certain generation will look back fondly upon a side who, despite containing few household names, helped themselves to seven limited overs titles in that period.
Most notably there was a white ball clean sweep in 2000, which came off the back of their cup double winning campaign of 1999.
But it is a case of what might not have been had the newly installed Bracewell not gambled on releasing overseas star Courtney Walsh at the peak of his powers.
The West Indian quick was a firm fans favourite at Gloucester and had claimed no fewer than 106 first-class victims in 1998 before the shock decision to move in a different direction:
“John came in and ruffled a few feathers, getting rid of several seniors straight away,” Lewis explained.
“We’d won 10 games in the Championship in 1998, finished 3rd and had a sniff of winning it.
“Courtney had carried the side for years and John just said “you guys need to go and do the job now”.
“He instilled a great belief in collective and working together as a team.
“He saw the skills in the other guys and taught us that the strength of the group was our biggest asset.
“It was a huge gamble but it certainly paid off!”