Great balls of Fire in Babylon

Through a rosy mist of nostalgia, Garry Steckles watches a new movie about West Indies cricket

Gordon Greenidge in fine batting style. Photograph by Ken KellyPoster

The West Indies cricket team have been so dismal for so long it’s becoming easier and easier to forget they were once the best in the world.

Not just fleetingly, either. For something like quarter of a century, starting with their historic Test series victory in England in 1950, they were frequent contenders for best-on-the-planet honours, entrancing the cricket world with players like Garfield Sobers, Frank Worrell, Rohan Kanhai, Lance Gibbs, Sonny Ramadhin, Wes Hall, Alf Valentine, Basil Butcher, Clyde Walcott, Conrad Hunte and Everton Weekes.

Then they kicked it up a notch.

From 1976, the West Indies were, quite simply, unbeatable for the better part of two decades. They routinely thrashed all the world’s top teams, and they were particularly harsh on England, with whom, not insignificantly, they had some long-standing historic issues – far-from-trifling matters like slavery, colonialism, and exploitation. And while those wrongs could not be retroactively righted in a sporting contest, they clearly hadn’t been forgotten as five and a half ounces of lethal cork and leather crunched into English bodies time after time at speeds routinely in excess of 90 miles per hour.

The sight of Michael Holding – aka Whispering Death – strolling nonchalantly away with his back turned on an England batsman who had just collapsed in agony after stopping one of Holding’s thunderbolts with his ribcage said everything you needed to know.

Those heady days, when the West Indies ruled the world, are long gone. But they have been recaptured on film, graphically and eloquently, in a critically acclaimed documentary called Fire in Babylon.

I watched it first in the company of a couple of American friends, guys in their thirties who had been brought up on baseball and who had always thought of cricket as a genteel pastime interrupted at regular intervals so the participants could nibble on cucumber sandwiches. They were astonished by the violent aspects of the game, and had particular difficulty in grasping the concept of bowlers deliberately aiming for and hitting batsmen – a no-no in baseball, where a ball simply brushing past a batter often results in the outraged victim charging at the offending pitcher in search of revenge.

The key to the West Indies’ success was simple: unrelenting pace from a battery of four fast bowlers, a batting lineup perhaps as good as any in cricket history, and an inspirational captain who took no prisoners. The savagery they inflicted on shell-shocked opponents resulted in something like 40 of them ending up in hospital during the decades of West Indies supremacy. It was no coincidence that all this happened during the era when the Black Power movement was at its height throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, the Civil Rights movement was at its peak in the United States, the anti-apartheid struggle was gaining unstoppable momentum in South Africa, Britain was in the midst of race riots, and the rebel-reggae music of Bob Marley – featured prominently in the soundtrack of Fire in Babylon – was captivating the world.

I caught up with the director of Fire in Babylon, Stevan Riley, just before he headed to New York, where the documentary was about to be shown at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, and he agreed that there’s a lot more to it than simply sporting greatness. I asked Riley about his thoughts on the film and the era that it depicted. His response: “What emerged was a story of West Indian emancipation through sport. The WI team carried the ambitions of the Third World and the entire black diaspora. Their success was a wonderfully defiant response to prejudice and racial injustice in the Seventies and Eighties and remains one of the great sporting and political epics of the twentieth century.”

Apart from being great entertainment – unless you happen to be an England player from that era – Fire in Babylon is educational. It shows, for example, how the invincibles didn’t just happen by chance; they were methodically gathered together and melded into an unstoppable force by Clive Lloyd.

Lloyd had captained the West Indies in Australia in 1975/76, when they were comprehensively beaten by five Tests to one. The West Indies, on paper a talented bunch of young players, simply had no answer to the frighteningly aggressive and lightning-fast bowling of Australia’s Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, and in Riley’s documentary Michael Holding recalls how he was reduced to tears by the fearsome opposition. “It was the hardest cricket I had ever seen,” Holding says.

After that series, Lloyd decided that not only would the West Indies play their cricket harder than Australia – they would take the game to levels of intensity that no opposition could cope with. Before long, the West Indies were fielding not two ferocious fast bowlers, but four. The pace quartet, a permutation initially chosen from Holding, Andy Roberts, Wayne Daniels, Vanburn Holder, Colin Croft, and Joel Garner – all, as Holding points out, coming at you at more than 90mph, not a wimpy 80-something – was aided and abetted by the flowering of brilliant young batsmen like Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, and Desmond Haynes. And under the generalship of Lloyd, himself a batsman capable of savaging any attack in the world, they quickly became unbeatable.

And they stayed that way for almost two decades, with a seemingly endless supply-line of hostile pace bowlers and superb batsmen replacing the Lloyd-era veterans when their careers had run their courses. The last two fast-bowling members of that great dynasty, Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, retired in 2000 and 2001 respectively, and today, with the West Indies relegated to also-rans in world cricket, Fire in Babylon is a welcome and refreshing hour and a half of marvellous memories.

If only it didn’t make you want to reach for the clock and push some magical rewind button.
Fire in Babylon will be screened at the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival. For dates and times see www.ttfilmfestival.com