A few weeks ago, Evin Lewis did something that few batsmen have managed in the history of T20 cricket: he relegated Chris Gayle to inconsequential supporting act. The pair opened together for St Kitts and Nevis Patriots against the Barbados Tridents, chasing 129 to win. They got there in seven overs, powered by Lewis’s remarkable 97 not out off 32 balls – denied the chance of a century only by Kieron Pollard’s no-ball when the scores were level.
Lewis laughs when I say that he outdid Gayle. “Yeah, yeah he told me the same thing. As I was striking the ball cleanly, he tried his best to give me the strike as much as possible. That’s something I feel really thankful for. Normally when a guy sees you going after the bowling he’ll try and go after the bowling too, but it was different with Chris.”
It was not the first time that Lewis has usurped Gayle. Two months ago, Gayle returned to international cricket in his hometown of Jamaica, for a T20 international against India. A few hours later the talk was only of the Trinidadian Lewis. While Gayle stuttered to a rather awkward 18 off 20 balls, Lewis heaved 125 off 62 balls, with 12 sixes: the sort of innings that has marked him out as Gayle’s heir.
That innings was Lewis’ second T20 international century, and second against India. The first came a year ago, in Florida. Lewis arrived assuming that he would be an unused squad member. “The coach came up to me that morning and said ‘Chris is out, you’re in’,” he recalls. “I was so nervous but I said ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ So I just went out, was positive and got a good start. I felt free and started to hit the ball very cleanly.”
By the time he was done, Lewis had scored 100 in 49 balls; both his T20I centuries have come at a strike rate in excess of 200. He and Gayle now form two-thirds of an elite club – Brendon McCullum is the other member – to have scored two T20I centuries.
“Everybody keeps calling me the young Chris Gayle,” he chuckles. “I think I’m similar to how he bats. We work on a regular basis – almost every time together in the nets. He keeps talking to me, telling me to keep being myself, keep being positive, and keep doing my thing. In the wicket it’s the same – he always tells me to keep my shape when I go after the bowling. He’s a guy who’s really helped me in my cricket so far.”
Lewis is a couple of inches shorter than Gayle, but shares his power and meticulous focus on hitting sixes. Both left-handed openers embrace an all-or-nothing trade-off, permitting a high percentage of dot-balls, while gluttonously reaping boundaries. Like Gayle, Lewis tends to eschew dabs behind the wicket, trusting instead in his own raw strength and timing. Full balls are lashed straight; those short of a length are heaved over the leg side, often through square leg; anything short is pulled with impunity.
Perhaps we should not be asking whether Lewis will one day dethrone Gayle, but whether he already has. Consider their records opening together in this year’s Caribbean Premier League. Gayle scored five more runs in the tournament, and with four more not-outs was more consistent. But Lewis made his tempo look almost funereal: Gayle’s strike rate was 127.02; Lewis’s was 184.57. Gayle hit a boundary every 6.3 balls; Lewis hit one every 3.4 – and, unlike Gayle, more of those boundaries were sixes than fours.
“He seems to have the all-round game and generally attacks from ball one, whereas Chris sometimes needs to face a few balls to get his eye in,” observes Trevor Penney, a coach at St Kitts and Nevis Patriots. Across T20 since the start of 2016, Lewis scores at 8.92 runs an over in the Powerplay, Gayle at a more sedate 7.74 runs an over.
“Once I know I can hit a ball for six, I’ll hit it for six. It can be the first ball,” Lewis explains. “I always back my strength. Certain balls I know, when it’s in my arc, I know I can hit it out the ground. Sometimes the good balls also go for six – that’s how the game is. When you’re on point, you’re on point.”
To Lewis, bowlers are not opponents to fret over; they exist to give him something to hit. “I’m a destructive batsman – a batsman who goes out to be myself and be positive. I don’t worry about any name. If a big bowler or a bowler who’s really established bowls a short ball or a half volley, it’s the same half volley. That’s how I see it.”
Lewis might have been lost to cricket. As a child, he preferred football, and “used to run from the ball” when batting. “But my dad told me that cricket is a better sport, especially in the country you live in – footballers don’t really reach as far as cricketers. So I just stuck to that.”
The young Lewis idolised two cricketers: his compatriot Brian Lara, and Gayle. “Growing up, you don’t really have most of the technique, and most of the knowledge about cricket. Once you see the ball you just swing as hard as possible to see how far you can hit the ball. It just happens.” It was optimal grounding for the T20 age. “I have a special talent in me to hit sixes, so I just keep working on it every time I go out to bat, try and work on my strengths and also my weaknesses.”
Such belligerence will surely lead to a gallivanting T20 career. Lewis has already played in the Bangladesh Premier League, where he will return in November, and has designs on other leagues too. “I might end up in the Big Bash and PSL and hopefully next year, please God, the IPL.”
The question seems not whether Lewis’ talents will be seen throughout the world in the coming years, but if this will be confined to T20, with some one-day internationals throw in, or will extend to Tests too. Penney is convinced that Lewis can replicate David Warner’s journey from T20 into a successful Test cricketer: “He would flourish because he has a sound technique.”
Lewis is elusive on Test cricket. “I won’t say I don’t want to play. Actually, if I do get the opportunity I would be interested but you know how things go sometimes. So let’s wait for the right moment to see what happens.”
Yet although he is only 25, T20 careers rapidly gain their own momentum; if Lewis wants to play Tests too, he will have to make a conscious choice to focus more on his red-ball game. Perhaps, paradoxically, T20 specialisation will prove the most enduring difference with Gayle’s career. Gayle, for all his embrace of the T20 life, has played 103 Tests (and scored two triple-centuries).
Either way, Lewis’s aim is not to be seen as merely Gayle’s protege. “I want to create my own image. I don’t really want to be under Chris Gayle. I want to be myself and make myself proud.” And so Lewis already has his eyes set on usurping Gayle once again, this time by stealing his record for the world’s quickest T20 century, set in just 30 balls.
“The first record I was thinking of breaking was to score the fastest hundred in T20 cricket. That’s one record I’m really looking forward to.” (ESPNCricinfo)