Posted by: tootingtrumpet | April 29, 2011

Fire in Babylon

The two masterminds of West Indian cricket's rise. Clive Lloyd is on the left.

When I was 13 years old in the hot, hot, hot summer of 1976, I wanted to be Michael Holding – to run like that, to bowl so straight, so fast and (sometimes) so short, to be a Ferrari in a 1970s world of Ford Anglias. With age comes wisdom and now… well, now I still want to be Michael Holding, approaching sixty and still a jaw-dropping presence, for whom I could not find words when I met him last summer.

Fire in Babylon seeks to capture the cultural and historical significance of the team that Mikey played for, Clive Lloyd’s great West Indians of the 70s and 80s. Beginning with somewhat dismissive comments about the entertaining, but losing, “calypso cricket” of truly great players (Garry Sobers, Wes Hall, Frank Worrell FFS!), we are soon transported to the gladiatorial contest that was the 1975-6 tour to Australia. Big Clive’s young West Indian side were demolished 5-1 by the pace of Lillee and Thomson at their absolute peak and the hostility of a still monocultural Australia that might charitably be described as politically incorrect on and off the field. But the one win Clive’s men achieved (on the WACA’s flyer) provided the blueprint for Clive’s plan. With 13 wickets shared between the increasingly cunning 24 year-old Antiguan, Andy Roberts and the raw 21 year-old Jamaican Michael Holding and six more going to the hardly pedestrian Keith Boyce and Bernard Julien, Clive knew the future belonged to extreme pace delivered relentlessly short of a length or full on a leg and middle line. With the bat too, intimidation would be the key – led from the front by a captain who hit the ball as hard as anyone before or since, Clive’s men hit 87 boundaries in 96 overs’ batting racking up 585. Like all revolutions, looking back they seem inevitable, but this was Steve Waugh’s philosophy on stilts thirty years earlier.

In the film, this “Get Up, Stand Up” response to Australian violence with ball and tongue, English crassness (yes – Tony Greig’s “Grovel” gets another airing) and Indian moral posturing is set within the context of the emerging post-colonial Caribbean democracies (the “West Indies” is a tourist destination and a cricket team – the players hail from Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad…) and a cricket and political establishment in which racism permanently bubbled under the surface, occasionally breaking free to show its ugly face.

With the leadership, strategy and the weapons, West Indies were a formidable outfit but not yet an unstoppable force, since the players were still professional only in name, paid even less than their Australian and English opponents and without any organised physical and mental preparation for the intense cricket they intended to play, session-after-session, day-after-day. That final piece of the jigsaw was to come in the unlikely shape of an overweight Australian media magnate – Kerry Packer. After a poor early showing in World Series Cricket, Packer went into the West Indies’ dressing room and spat out the lexicon of Anglo-Saxon expletives explaining how the men in pink were not good enough and how he would send them home if there was no improvement. By now, Big Clive and Big Kerry were fellow outcasts, ostracised from mainstream cricket with their futures on the line. The men looked each other in the eye, understood what was at stake, and delivered their sides of the bargain. Under the fitness regime of Dennis Waight and with a team spirit forged in the fire of WSC’s ultra-hard cricket and the fight to be allowed back to play in post-WSC Test Matches, the lessons learned in bowling and batting for Packer were put to good use – West Indies went fifteen years without losing a Test series, thrilling millions and dismaying thousands with their ruthless cricket.

Stevan Riley’s film concentrates on two elements of the tale – the cultural impact of this team of black men lording it over the ex-colonial masters’ game and the testosterone-fueled aggression of the cricket. There’s not enough cricket for tragics like me (and never, never, never cut away from Michael Holding’s run up – the most beautiful ten seconds in sport) but, as the personable director explained in the post-showing interview, the rights to footage were just too expensive. What we lose in action, we gain in some wonderful stills that look extraordinarily impressive on the big screen (including my favourite sporting photograph) and some splendid interviews with cricketers, musicians and teachers. I enjoyed Andy Roberts’ dry humour revealing the eloquence of the quiet man and the fire that still burned in Gordon Greenidge’s eyes, as he described that the racist abuse he faced in Australia (and that from a man who had lived in a hardly racism-free 70s England since the age of 14). The decisions Riley made in constructing his documentary might not fully satisfy the cricket fan nor the culture vulture, but it’ll please both of them. As a film, it’s more Desmond Haynes than Viv Richards, but Dessie wasn’t bad was he?

Fire in Babylon is released in the UK on 20 May 2011.

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Responses

  1. Sounds fascinating. I think I may find it awkward and unpleasant hearing about the boneheaded racism they endured in Australia in the ’70s. But I’ll catch it nevertheless.

    • There’s a bit Pete, but no country can claim clean hands at that time. It’s a credit to the work done that it is so anachronistic just a generation later.

      • I know that Gray. A credit to the players that they don’t bear too many grudges as well.

        • Gary that is

  2. I’ve been waiting for this movie since last year and I’m so going to watch this the very day it releases in India.

  3. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Fire in Babylon’ – I could hardly fail to really, since I also grew up watching those guys and they informed my music taste and my embryonic political views as well as my appreciation of cricket – I had a couple of small caveats. Firstly, it seemed a tad too willing to play fast and loose with the archive footage – using film of Sunil Gavaskar’s walk-off (against Australia, wasn’t it?) as an illustration of the world’s emerging hostility to the Windies’ tactics felt at best cavalier and at worst, manipulative. Secondly, the emphasis on the sheer, physical, visceral threat of the Windies’ bowling attack ended up feeling slightly reductive. Sure, for every Marshall there was a Patterson but even so, these guys weren’t just fast and nasty, they were good. So good. I struggle to believe that there’s ever been a more skillful and intelligent fast bowler than Malcolm Marshall and the film concentrated too heavily on the amplified grunts of pain and splinterings of helmets to really bring that out.

    • TheHarry – In the discussion after the showing I saw, Stevan Riley talked of the editing process and how some shots “fitted better” at certain points in the film – I guess that’s the creative process. I was sure that it was Bedi and not Gavaskar who was the leader of the walk off too (or rather, declaration).

      I asked that very question about why he had largely ignored the aesthetic beauty of a Holding delivery or a Fredericks hook. Again, he said that he wanted to concentrate on the aspects of the cricket that fitted his central themes. I guess those decisions are fair in a film which is not solely focused on the cricket.

      • So we get two films in the last 6 months that aren’t about the cricket (for obvious reasons). Although I’d argue not having the sport as a central point does a dis-service to those who feature in the film, but I’m willing to accept that I might be in a minority in holding this view.

        Is it too much to hope that the next cricket film might actually sate a cricket fan’s desire for the sport to take center stage & be treated with the respect that it gets from its billions of followers?

        OK, rant over.

        • Well the Botham’s Ashes film is out next week, so we’ll find out.

          I think that in the getting of financing and distribution, the cricket demographic is probably a bit small and specialist. Sport too, it seems.

  4. Dirk
    It’s a tricky one. I saw criticism of ‘Out of the Ashes’ coming from both directions. There were people who felt it sidelined, or at least, trivialised the cricket. But I also saw criticism from people who’d have liked more focus on the geopolitical backdrop of the story. For my money, it was a lovely film that just about got the balance right. Regarding ‘Fire in Babylon’, I’d have actually welcomed a bit more of the political and social context, particularly in terms of the succour given to the UK’s West Indian diaspora by their cricket team. I’d guess that TT’s right. You couldn’t make a cricketing purist’s film along these kind of lines because the finances just wouldn’t add up. We’re a niche market, sadly…

  5. It’s a pretty awesome film which serves a very important purpose.

    The english heritage, if you like, of knowing all about the Ashes even for a non-cricket lover is intrinsic to our learning. Whereas in the Windies the youth playin cricket know very little of The Four Horseman or Viv or Clive.

    At the Fire In Babylon UK press conference Holding said that after the film premiered in Windies Chris Gayle came up to him and said he hardly knew any of what was shown in the film. And him the captain!

    So the film serves as an educational tool – despite its frailties.

    Also Executive producer Ben Goldsmith made this film for his love of West Indian Cricket. The DVD release (which is very shortly after the cinema release) will see £1 of every DVD sale go to The Cricket Foundation’s Chance to Shine initiative.

    90% of the donations to Chance to Shine will be financing a feasability study to see if C2S can work in the West Indies as effectively has it has in the UK.

    The other 10% will go to maintaing current UK based C2S activities.

    • Scott – That’s very useful information which wasn’t mentioned at the Q and A I attended. West Indies cricket needs as much help as it can get from its more wealthy brothers and sisters who love the game.

      Sportsmen and women are notoriously incurious about their sports aren’t they? One of the many surprising aspects of Mike Tyson is his genuine love of boxing history – I’d be interested to hear if any cricketers match Tyson’s enthusiasm for their sport’s heritage.

      Good Luck with C2S.

      • Which Q+A did you attend Trumpet?

        I suspect cricketers like Ed Smith and Mike Atherton would foot the bill for cricket.

        I’m a former student of yours from LCC. My C2S e-mail is scott.collen@cricketfoundation.org.uk would be good to hear from you.

  6. Hi Scott – good to hear from you again.

    I was at the Riverside Studios Hammersmith for the Q and A. I’ll drop you an e-mail too.

    Good Luck with the work.


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