UK Cinema Release Date: Friday 20th May 2011
Official Site: http://www.fireinbabylon.com
Written and Directed by: Stevan Riley
Starring: Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding, Ian Botham, Jeffery Dujon, Colin Croft
Runtime: 1 hour 27 minutes (approx.)
Between 1980 and 1995 the West Indies cricket team never lost a series, a most remarkable thing. They did this through discovering a discipline they had never consistently shown before and the development of a bowling attack consisting of three or four genuinely fast bowlers, a fast bowling lineage which began in the mid 1970s with Holding, Roberts and Daniel and ended in the mid 1990s with Walsh, Ambrose and Bishop. Their dominance was aided by the failure of umpires to implement the cricket law banning persistent short-pitched bowling – arguably because of a fear of being called racist – but in truth they were formidable even without bowling four or five short-pitched balls an over. The runs scored against the West Indies in their period of dominance were almost certainly the hardest earned in the history of Test cricket (the first Test was played in 1877).
Those with no knowledge of cricket will have read that paragraph and said, no, not interested. Let them bear with me for a moment. It is a film about a sporting side but it is far more than that. Primarily it is a masterclass in black victimhood and insecurities in which cricket takes a distant second place. That explains why the film has been greeted with such rapture by British film critics who are signed up to the “ol’ whitey bad, black good “ liberal agenda (for a wide range of quotes see http://www.fireinbabylon.com/press.html).
The Daily Telegraph’s review is typical: “Director Stevan Riley’s joyous and uplifting film is a celebration of a sporting triumph and all its implications for black politics and culture.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/8524438/Fire-in-Babylon-review.html)
The director Stevan Riley made no bones about the purpose of the film: “a story of freedom, independence and black pride through bat and ball”. (http://www.channel4.com/news/fire-in-babylon-what-lessons-for-west-indies-cricket-now). The result is a film which is an unrestrained act of pro-black propaganda, with whites and England painted as the colonial oppressors and the Asian populations of the West Indies relegated to the role of non-persons. Within this context, the West Indies team of the late 1970s to the mid 1990s is portrayed as a vehicle for the political consciousness of the newly independent West Indian countries; a means by which the black West Indian population (but not the white or Asian West Indians) could assert themselves and show themselves to be able to compete with and dominate their old colonial masters.
Those not familiar with cricket in general or West Indies cricket in particular will require some background. The West Indies is not a nation state. Rather it is a collection of British ex-colonies in the Caribbean (Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados being the main islands) plus one on the South American continent (Guyana). Cricket is the only thing which brings them formally together.
The history of West Indies cricket is a mirror of the racial and ethnic tensions in the ex-colonies. The team until the 1970s was a mix of whites, blacks and Asians (mainly those who had ancestors who came from the Sub-continent). Until 1960 the West Indies cricket team (known as the Windies) was always captained by a white man, apart from the odd match where injury or other absence of resulted in no suitable white player being available.
Throughout the period of white captains there was a growing restlessness amongst black West Indians for a black captain. After the appointment of the first black man , Frank Worrell, to the (regular) captaincy in 1960, the participation of white and Asian players steadily diminished – in the case of whites it might be truer to say effectively ended. Geoffrey Greenidge was the last white player to represent the West Indies (in 1972) before Brendon Nash appeared in 2008 (and he was a white Australian who qualified for the West Indies through his mother), while no Asians were chosen between Larry Gomes’ final appearance in 1986 and Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s debut in 1994. This left a side entirely composed of black West Indians. In the late 1980s the Windies Captain Viv Richards proudly described his side as “a team of Africans”.
There is no mention in the film of this exclusion of whites and Asians from the Windies side during their period of dominance, nor Viv Richard’s celebration of the fact that he was leading an all black side. This is scarcely surprising because those interviewed in the film are all black and the interviewer did not ask awkward questions. Famous white cricketers and commentators such as Geoff Boycott , Ian Botham and Jeff Thompson who had played against the Windies during their period of dominance were interviewed by the director, but strangely not a single interview of a white man conducted for the film appeared in the film. Tellingly, white faces were almost absent from the film except for the action shots. Ditto Asians. Instead the film was packed with interviews with West Indian cricketers and commentators who had either played in or seen the Windies at their height , and film or commentary of black West Indian celebrities such as Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Lord Short Shirt, Burning Spear (no, I am not making the names up) and Gregory Isaacs who happily mixed with players such as Viv Richards.
A deep-rooted black paranoia shows itself in the interpretation as patronising of white attitudes and responses which are at worst neutral and at best complimentary. The description “Calypso cricket” by whites is interpreted as meaning that West Indian sides play in an attractive but brittle and unthinking way. In reality it was simply a bit of lazy labelling by journalists and broadcasters without any intent to patronise or insult.
Australians turning out in great numbers to applaud the West Indies touring party as they toured the streets of Melbourne at the end of the 1960/61 series against Australia was dismissed as Australians being happy to applaud losers (they lost the series 2-1). In fact, they were being applauded because the series was (1) thoroughly exciting with the first tied Test in history and (2) Test cricket was going through a period when it was feared that slow, defensive play was killing the public’s appetitive for the game and the series was seen as a renaissance of attractive cricket.
The only instance in the film of a white man suggesting that the Windies were chokers was made by the England captain in the 1976 series between the Windies and England. This was the South African Tony Greig (playing for England after qualifying residentially) predicting before the series that the Windies “would grovel”. Had he made the comment about Australia or an Australian made it about England it would have just been treated for what it was, a bit of “pre-fight” banter. In the film it is treated with an immense earnestness as if it was the deadliest of insults.
This outrage is very odd because the central thesis of the film is that until the late 1970s the Windies were a team which often contained great individuals, but hich was all too prone to not playing as a team, whether that be because of racial strife (especially under white captains) , the difficulties of bring people together from different countries in a representative team or the lingering effects of colonialism which led to an unconscious lack of belief in themselves. (The alleged weaknesses were supposedly only cured after Clive Lloyd became captain and eventually moulded the Windies into a relentless machine for winning. )
This story is some way adrift from reality. It is untrue that the Windies were a consistently brittle side before Clive Lloyd became captain. They always had great players and in the space of four years in the 1960s they won two series in England and beat the Australians in the West Indies. By 1965 they had good claims to be the strongest side in the world. That they declined towards the end of the 1960s and early 1970s was simply the natural consequence of a great side growing old and losing important players. In short, it was simply what any top cricketing Test side experiences, peaks and troughs of performance.
One of the most intriguing passages is the series between Australia and the Windies in 1975/76 when the Australian fast bowlers Lillie and Thompson physically knocked the Windies about so badly that the series was lost 6-1. That was time when the Windies captain Clive Lloyd decided on playing a three or four man fast bowling attack. In fact, what appears to have been the real turning point was the rebel Packer matches of a few years later. Kerry Packer was an Australian media mogul who signed up (to the horror of the national cricket boards who banned the players from playing Test cricket) many of the best cricketers in the world, including most of the Australian and West Indies players.
The Packer series began badly for the Windies who folded weakly in an early match. According to the film, Packer came into Windies dressing room and gave them a tongue-lashing along the lines of improve or you will be on a plane home. Packer also arranged for then to use a physiotherapist and fitness trainer by the name of Denis Waite because he was doubtful about their fitness. (http://www.catholicnews-tt.net/joomla/index.php?view=article&catid=49:sports&id=174:sports010209&option=com_content&Itemid=82). Waite, a white Australian, got them fit and psychologically prepared. By the end of Packer’s rebel games (they lasted two years) the Windies had started to win relentlessly. It could be argued that the Windies built their later success on a platform constructed by two white men, Packer and Waite.
The other great hand-up from ol’ whitey was the decision of the English cricket authorities in 1969 to relax the qualification rules for county cricket, the English domestic first class teams. This meant that foreign players, including most of the major West Indian cricketers of the period 1970-1995, were able to play regular professional cricket in England. This both gave the Windies players a regular source of income from cricket (something which had never been readily available before) and a great deal of experience both of playing and English conditions and culture.
After 1995 the great days were over, although they were still competing for another five years or so as the great old players held the team together. After 2000, the Windies team declined rapidly until it became a pathetic shadow of what it had been only a few years before. Why did this happen? Perhaps it was this:
“The things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed” Calypsonian David Rudder on the difference between the 80s and today (http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/483624.html)
If Rudder is correct, that paints a bleak picture of the future of the West Indies not only as cricketers but generally. What he is saying is that only the mixture of anger and fear left by colonialism is sufficient to energise West Indians.
From a purely cricketing point of view the film offers many examples of great fast bowlers in action. Those too young to have watched cricket in the 1970s and 1980s should watch the film and see the difference between genuine fast bowling and what passes for it now. In particularly I was reminded of what a nightmare Jeff Thompson was at his best , not merely one of the fastest of bowlers, but one with an uncanny knack of getting a ball to rear into a batsman’s face from barely short of a length. Most of the action shots are of batsmen being hit or nearly hit, which is a little unedifying, but they do give a graphic idea of exactly how much courage and skill is required to face great fast bowling. The most poignant shots are those of a 45-year-old Brian Close batting against Holding and Roberts in 1976 before the era of helmets and being repeatedly hit on the body, an assault he met with a remarkable stoicism.
Those wanting a flavour of the film can click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n57LPYiragE