Fire in Babylon

CLR James wrote his wonderful history Beyond a boundary about the parallel struggles for Caribbean independence and for the selection of a black captain of the West Indies cricket team. Until Frank Worrell became captain of the West Indies in 1960 the captain had always been a white man, although this position became increasingly untenable through the 1950’s.

During the 1960’s and early 1970’s the West Indies under Garfield Sobers became known as Calypso cricketers, entertaining but fallible. Their team performance was said to be too dependent upon the form of the captain.

By the time Clive Lloyd was appointed captain in the mid 1970’s he was captaining a team that was a generation removed from the struggle for the recognition of a black West Indian captain outlined by James, but still struggling to be taken seriously as independent nations. The combined influence of black sporting icons such as Muhammed Ali, the US sprinters at the 1968 Olympics and Caribbean musicians and film makers positively inspired the new generation of West Indian cricketers such as Colin Croft, Andy Roberts and Viv Richards. The goad was provided by their treatment at the hands of the Chappell era Australians led by Lillee and Thomson. “Right”, thought Lloyd, “if two is good, four is better.” It’s called fighting fire with fire.

Fire in Babylon is a marvellous film which documents the rise of the awesome West Indian cricket teams of the late 70’s through to the mid 90’s. The film features some great archival footage of the cricket, the music and the fashion (cringe), and it also includes some fascinating interviews with West Indian cricketers and cricket fans. These cricketers were very much aware of their part in fostering a stronger black West Indian culture in the Caribbean and the wider ramifications of West Indian cricket success in England for the migrant communities, as well as in apartheid era South Africa. Viv Richards musing that a hero such as Nelson Mandela could even know who he was is one of the affecting moments in the film. In the 80’s Viv stood tall and said “No way” to the dirty Rands being thrown around by the Boers, although he bears no grudges to those who went there. Colin Croft seems a bit conflicted and defensive about having taken apartheid money.

Watching the four man West Indian pace attacks is a frightening experience even at the remove of 30 years. Everyone tells us Andy Roberts was a really nice guy. I’m sure he was and maybe still is for all I know. I’m just glad I never grew up to be any good as a cricketer. You watch the four horsemen of the apocalypse running up to bowl, you watch them release the ball halfway back in the cinema and you flinch in sympathy with these pre helmet cricketers. Tony Greig was one of the first cricketers to regularly wear a helmet. That was soon after the sometime South African come England captain had unwisely suggested he would make the West Indies “grovel”. There aren’t many ways to read a statement like that from a white South African, and none of the West Indians took it kindly. And then there is some footage lovingly lingering on the pain inflicted on Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and Greg Chappell by the pace quartet. They would see it partly as a homage to their Australian tutors. “You got to walk and don’t look back” at those pasty white guys.

It is fascinating to see the full alcohol fuelled aggression of an Australian sporting crowd in the 1970’s from the other side of the fence. We all know there are some bogans out there who go to the cricket; it is really interesting to see how many the West Indian cricketers think there are. We thought Bay 13 at the MCG was a bit hairy late in the day, but the poor West Indians had never seen anything like that level of aggressive crowd behaviour before. Most of them came from small, poor island communities and a drunk, sunburnt cricket crowd in a big, wealthy city would have been well beyond their normal social sphere.

One Australian comes out of the film well – the guy who decided to pay them some decent money, Kerry Packer. Not only did he pay them well, he made them get fit to play World Series Cricket; fit enough to beat anyone. Perhaps dressing them in “poofter pink” added a little extra motivation to their cricket as well.

The centrepiece of the film is the “blackwash” of England in 1984 and the way in which the West Indian community showed their pride in their invincible sporting team and finally shook off the colonial heritage of subservience to white culture. Either that, or else they just had a great time watching Gower, Gatting and Botham being beaten up by Vivvie and their team, again and again. The West Indians won 5-0 in England and followed up by winning 5-0 at home in the following series.

This is that magnificent beast; a sporting film which transcends its subject by showing how and why something as trivial as a sport played on beaches by West Indian boys can come to mean so much to the wider community. Bob Marley was thrilled to talk to the cricketers, and they in turn were thrilled that Bob Marley thought them worthy of notice. “Get up, stand up”, and so they did, and they went out and dominated the world of cricket for almost two decades.

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About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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