“All of a sudden the West Indians have started to turn it around”, observed a commentator witnessing a short pitch delivery whistling past an Englishmen’s nose. This probably was one of the numerous such comments anyone would have made watching the West Indian bowling during the mid 1970s. With such an instance, Stevan Riley starts off his film “Fire in Babylon”.
Another commentator, this time around, a gentlemen from Yorkshire, a certain Geoffrey Boycott spits out his disgust at the beaming bouncers saying, “ That`s not right, I really do not care if you are a West Indian or Englishmen, that cannot be right in cricket”.
The next shot of “Fire in Babylon” introduces the great West Indian legend, Vivian Richards, who puts forth a counter argument, “Aggression means aggression, that’s how I look at life, in fight am going to fight. We had a mission; a mission that we believe in ourselves and we believe that we are just as good as anyone…… Equal for that matter.
And anyone who knows their cricket would most definitely be able to comprehend what Viv had said. Equal for that matter, invariably draws comparison not only on the cricketing field, but it has much bigger and far more impacting connotations to it.
The 1960s and 1970s were particularly rare revolutionary periods in West Indies as Frank 1, author and broadcaster points out and it was during this backdrop of civil liberty struggles that West Indies were trying to find solace through cricket.
Stevan Riley, in his documentary “Fire in Babylon” tries to portray the context and tenure of West Indies cricket through the kaleidoscope of politics and the society.
With narrations by Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and many others, as an audience one could sense and understand how the ex-slaves dominated the game of their imperial masters for nearly two decades.
Babylon is the historically White-European colonial and imperialist power structure which oppressed Blacks and other people of colour, and the title “Fire in Babylon”, well it offers a clear cut picture of what one can expect in this 87 minutes long reel.
The picture of West Indian cricket unfolds with Frank Worrell being the first Black captain for the West Indies, a monumental choice depicting the conquest for civil rights in the Caribbean. However, the cricketing fraternity was not amused with this paradigm shift as the Windies cricketers were clearly not at same level field with others in cricketing perspective.
‘Calypso Cricketers’, they were called, a bunch of fun loving Black guys with no substance at all to play the elitist game. The Stigma of ‘Calypso Cricketers’ stuck with them for years to come until a leader in the form of Clive Lloyd stepped in.
And with Lloyd in charge, players like Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts made their first trip to Australia. This was a team capable of producing cricket of the finest quality, a team which could banish the tag of ‘Calypso Cricketers’.
However, that was not to be, a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the menacing Aussies Down Under left West Indian cricketers not only in anguish, but also tormented.
And this is where Riley, the director weaves in the most integral part of this film; Fast Bowling. Portrayed as villains, through slinger Jeff Thompson and the hulk-like Dennis Lillee, the film moves into its second part; the birth and rise of West Indian fast bowling.
Clive Lloyd features here prominently, as being the person in charge of shaping the renowned West Indian pace battery.
Bonny Wailer, in his narratives states, “They say after humiliation is riches, power, might and blessings eternally”, and that is what exactly happened. India toured the West Indies immediately after Windies’ dismal Australian tour.
What greeted India was nothing less than a barrage of fiery pace bowling lead by Holding along with Roberts and Wayne Daniel. West Indies clinched the four match series 2-1 with a crushing 10 wickets victory in the final Test.
However, though the film shows this tour being totally dominated by West Indies, India did have its own share of happy moments as well. Sunil Gavaskar holding his own in the series and the epic 406 run chase, a record that stood for a long time in the fourth innings came in this very tour.
Another prominent ingredient of this film is the ‘Grovel series’. It was redemption time for West Indies touring England in 1976. After showing glimpses of brilliance against India, the Windies were all set to rattle their old masters.
The then England captain, South African born Tony Grieg on the eve of the first Test match made a comment which did not go down well with touring party and moreover angered them more.
“These (West Indians) guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they`re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey (Brian Close) and a few others, to make them grovel,” a seemingly confident Tony had stated thus.
What transpired next is considered to be a part of cricketing folklore. West Indies dominated England in that tour and the prowess of Caribbean bowling attack was on full flow. Michael Holding, curiously nicknamed ‘Whispering Death’ sent down the most brutal 6 balls ever seen on cricketing field with Brain Close – aged 45, at the receiving end of it.
West Indies had stamped their authority and they came back in 1984 to further humiliate the British with a stellar 5-0 ‘Blackwash’.
Before that, the West Indies pace attack had got retribution beating Australia 2-0 down under. The four horsemen of the apocalypse Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft had run havoc with the likes of Richards, Haynes and Greenidge blasting the Aussie attack to all parts of the ground.
The film ‘Fire in Babylon’ connects all these achievements to tell the riveting tale of West Indian ascendancy in World Cricket. Moreover, Stevan Riley is able to render not only the journey of a certain team, but also illustrates cricket at its best.
In any sport, rags to riches tales and inspiring underdog stories are aplenty and are also always well received. The West Indian squad of 1970s and 1980s was probably a culmination of all these, well pictured by Riley.
Moreover, ‘Fire in Babylon’ marks out cricket being more than just a sport.