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.