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Misfiring in Babylon: The Story of West Indian Cricket

Misfiring in Babylon: The Story of West Indian Cricket

Binoy Kampmark
August 1, 2011

Within a short span of time, two documentaries on cricket have emerged. The first is James Erskine’s Botham-dominated From the Ashes; the second, Steven Riley’s Fire in Babylon, an examination of the West Indian cricket story. While the account is colourful, powerful and passionate, more time might have been spent on the Frank Worrell years. The omission of any deep discussion of the 1960s, other than to dismiss it as charmingly defeatist, is a pity, given how critical Worrell’s brief stewardship was for the game.

Riley’s style fuses interviews, narrative and music. Groundsmen, fans, and very heavily dreadlocked Rastafarians keep company with the cricketers. Perhaps the most impressive cricketer interviewed in the film is the bludgeoning opening batsman Gordon Greenidge. Even in retirement, he is gritty, angry, determined. When he took to the field, his bat became something of a club to be borne against his opponents. For the most gifted of all – Sir Vivian Richards – the bat was a sword he put his opponents to.

A rather large target of the documentary is the transformation of the cheerful ‘calypso’ cricketer less prone to winning than entertaining into a ruthless outfit of aggression. The transformation took place after the bruising encounter with Australia in the series of 1975-6. Having pulverised the English tourists the preceding summer, the demon speedsters in the form of Lillee and Thompson repeated the effort against the West Indies. With the cherry flying past faces and caps came the now common practice of sledging. The calypso cricketer was duly given his marching orders.

From that moment on, the pace battery became the weapon of choice (if, indeed, you had the choice). The fearsome power of the West Indian bowling attack banished spinners to the fringes. With the emergence of World Series Cricket, speed and confrontation became the modus operandi of cricketing sides. Batsmen began to fill the casualty wards. As the speedster Andy Roberts claimed: ‘It’s not that we wanted to hit people. It’s that they got hit.’

India were the first recipients of the pace experiment, while England was crushed by a revitalised team determine to make the South African-born skipper Tony Greig pay for his remark about making the tourists ‘grovel’. The pinnacle of the experiment was the defeat of England by a ‘blackwash’ of 5-0 on their home soil in 1984.

At times, the documentary slides into a simple styled politics, which is perhaps inevitable as Riley has evidently made a conscious decision to keep the film West Indian in perspective. The idea that this formidable assembly of cricketers was a political extension is only correct at points. One might have hoped that West Indian politics reflected the discipline and industry of Clive Lloyd’s men, but this was simply not the case. Cricket remains one of the only things that unites that loose island collective, and it, like its nation’s leaders, is going to seed.

Nor is the racial picture an entirely simple one of white tyranny and black oppression. The emergence of black supremacy in the Caribbean had various groups in its sights – Indians amongst them. While the doctrine of Rasta is given more than a favourable nod in this documentary, there is little doubt that it has had its fair share in causing problems in those islands.

Nor is it entirely accurate to single out the West Indian players as being victims of white officialdom in terms of poor payments. All cricketers were paid poorly till the arrival of Packer World Series. But it also produced the logic of monetary value irresistible to the likes of Colin Croft. Croft, perhaps the most candid of all those interviewed, did not shy away from the highest bidder. When it came to the rebel tour of apartheid South Africa, he was the most notable defector. A mercenary for Packer can well be a mercenary for White South Africa. His team members thought otherwise.

A final quibble. There are some irritating instances when the footage is manipulated. Sequences are changed, time frames confused between pre and post-WSC footage. Sunil Gavaskar’s furious walk off the pitch is probably an edited version of a performance that took place in response to an umpiring decision in Australia, not the West Indies during the pace barrage that led to a ‘surrendered’ match.

Despite these reservations, Riley’s effort is a good one. A game made for white aristocrats on immaculately tended lawns was, in time, taken over by the ancestors of the very individuals they retained as slaves. So much so, in fact, that the Caribbean Marxist writer C.L.R James would laud it in his memoir Beyond the Boundary as one of the finest things to have ever been brought to the islands.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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