At the New Zealand International Film Festival: The Windies’ blaze of glory.
It’s a rare thing to have two of my loves merge on the big screen: film, and cricket. As a cricket fan born in the 1980s, it was hard not to take notice of the all-conquering West Indies’ cricket teams and their production line of fast bowlers and swashbuckling batsmen. Stevan Riley’s Fire in Babylon looks at the world-beating West Indies cricket team of the ’70s and ’80s, and re-casts their efforts in a post-colonial, nation-building setting. Much in the same way New Zealand likes to valorise its 1905 All Black rugby team as expressing its identity to the world, the West Indian cricket team asserted a unified Caribbean voice, only a decade or two after many became independent. Fire in Babylon is an entertaining look at some of the defining moments of that era, and features commentary from many of the key West Indian performers.
The West Indian cricket team were known as “attractive losers”—a flaky team with some individual stars who could occasionally put together a stunning performance, but could also conceivably collapse. And until Frank Worrell, they were always captained by a ‘white’ player. The film takes off during West Indies’ ill-fated 1975-76 tour of Australia. The Windies had just beaten the Aussies in the one-day World Cup final, and the tour was billed as a “World Championship.” The humiliating defeats, brutal racism, and intimidating fast bowling changed everything.
Fire in Babylon is composed of interviews with many of the key figures. Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, their fast bowling stars (Holding, Croft, Garner, and Roberts) discuss their reaction to the Australian series, to the moment they became almost invincible as a team (New Zealand in 1980 notwithstanding). It also features commentary from their fans and musicians from the time. If anything though, the documentary could have benefitted from some counter-viewpoints. Just what was Brian Close’s reaction after facing that over from Michael Holding? What does Tony Greig, a transplanted ‘white’ South African and then England captain, think in hindsight about saying he was going to make the West Indians “grovel” (arguably one of the stupidest comments ever made in sporting history)? Exposition, too, is at times lacking—additional cricket footage, or a stronger placing of the team in a cricketing context, would have remided this—and while Fire in Babylon doesn’t require much knowledge (if any at all) about test cricket, the achievements of its subjects would’ve no doubt resonated more.
That said, there is some fascinating stuff in here around the social implications of the team’s trail blazing success. The film covers Kerry Packer’s intervention, the “blackwash” thrashing of a solid English side, and the English press’ reaction to the fast bowling (and attempts to reduce the bowlers’ effectiveness). The rebel tour to South Africa was a particularly memorable moment; some players, like Richards, were offered blank cheques but refused, while others like Colin Croft went. His teammates’ reaction is particularly illuminating. Few sides in world sport have dominated a team sport so convincingly—not losing a test series for 15 years, for one—and Fire in Babylon solidly situates this great team in amongst times of great change.