Film review: Fire in Babylon (2010)

I just watched this absolutely riveting documentary. Ostensibly it is about how West Indian cricket became a dominant force in the years from 1980 until 1995 but it is about a lot more than that, weaving in the politics of race and colonialism. Even if you do not know anything about cricket, the politics of the film is utterly absorbing, a story of a victimized people fighting back at their former oppressors, with cricket serving as the vehicle for exacting that revenge.

The West Indies does not exist as a single nation. It is purely a cricket body and consists of many independent island nations in the Caribbean of which Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago are the largest and best known but there are a whole lot of tiny islands, ‘dots in the ocean’ as they are sometimes referred to. They each have their own histories and the only thing that brings them together is that they field a single cricket team. These countries achieved independence from the colonial powers, mainly the British, in the 1960s.

Until 1960 their cricket teams were always captained by a white player, with Frank Worrell becoming the first black captain. The West Indies teams were popular with cricket spectators around the world for the exuberance and flair they brought to the game. They had very good players but a reputation of being entertaining but losers, with individual players contributing spectacular performances but the team as a whole, especially after 1968, never quite pulling it together consistently for any length of time and crumbling at key moments. Their tour of Australia in 1975, in which the team was led by the soft-spoken but determined Clive Lloyd in just his second year of captaincy, was to be a watershed one in changing that attitude.

In cricket, there is nothing more fearsome than a genuine fast bowler, someone who can bowl accurately at speeds greater than 90 mph (about 145 km/h). The great fast bowlers were intimidating because they could bowl ‘bouncers’, slightly short-pitched deliveries that made the ball rear up at high speeds directly at the batters’ chest or head, forcing them to bob and weave to avoid being hit and not always succeeding and experiencing great pain and injury. Because batters became so unnerved by the fear of actual harm, they would lose concentration, play careless shots, and get out.

In 1975, Australia had two such fast bowlers in Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson who made no secret of the fact that they sought to intimidate all the batters they faced and were seeking to hit them if they could. They did this even when bowling to the so-called ‘rabbits’ (the other side’s bowlers who were not expert batters and thus less skilled at avoidance), thus breaking a gentlemen’s agreement to not use intimidation against them. Lillee and Thompson would taunt incoming batters by pointing to their heads, in effect warning them to expect the ball to be aimed at it, and gloat when they succeeded. But what really shocked the West Indian players was the intense level of vicious racist abuse that was constantly hurled at them, not only by the crowds but even by the Australian players on the field.

West Indies was crushed and lost the six-match series 5-1, and returned home humiliated. But there was change in the air. The rise of nationalist and anti-apartheid movements in Africa, the civil rights and black power struggles in the US and Muhammad Ali’s example of defiance, all created a sense that it was time for black people to stop being pushed around, even on the cricket field. Lloyd was determined to turn things around and felt that he needed his own fiery fast bowlers. He toured the islands looking for young talent and decided on Michael Holding and Andy Roberts as his opening pair of fast bowlers and they too trained in the art of accurate and intimidating bowling.

Unfortunately for India, they were the first test of this new resolve when they toured the West Indies in early 1976 and they lost the four Test series 2-1, largely due to the new found pace attack of the West Indies. The real test, though, was to come later in the year when the West Indies toured England, their former colonial masters, a country that was rife with racist attitudes against black immigrants and who had a condescending attitude towards the visiting cricketers. As the tour began, the England captain Tony Greig spoke dismissively of the visiting team and said that his goal was to make the West Indies ‘grovel’. Given that this was at a time when the anti-apartheid struggle against South Africa was raging, and that Greig himself was originally from that country, this was seen as reflecting that racist attitudes of the master over the slave. This infuriated the West Indian team and made them resolve to teach him and the rest of the English team and the nation a lesson.

Holding and Roberts unleashed a barrage of fast bowling that the English had never encountered before and that had them being battered and bruised. The bowlers took particular delight in doing this whenever Greig came to bat, taking even longer run ups so that they could bowl even faster. Greig had a miserable series with the bat and West Indies easily won the five-match series 3-0.

After some disruption in international cricket for the next couple of years due to the creation of a rival organization by Kerry Packer, international cricket reverted to its original state. By that time Lloyd and the West Indies had increased their stable of fast bowlers to four with the addition of Joel Garner and Colin Croft. When Australia toured the West Indies in 1977/1978, these four presented the Australians batters with a non-stop barrage of relentless fast bowling that made them crumble and the Australians were soundly defeated 3-1 in the five Test series.

But it was the West Indies tour of Australia in 1979, playing them on their home turf, that constituted the big revenge tour. The West Indies easily won the three match series 2-0. Their bowlers dominated the Australian batters, while the West Indies had the batting talent of Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Alvin Kallicharan, and the incomparable Viv Richards to counter the Australian bowlers. Richards not only had superb batting skills, he was also a master at the psychological game. He had a swagger on the field when he was batting, not showing any sign of fear. To show his disdain for the Australian fast bowlers, he refused to wear a protective helmet and when he got hit he would not show pain. Instead he would stare down the bowler, daring him to try doing that again and then hit him out of the ground if he did so.

From 1980 onwards until 1995, the West Indies did not lose a single Test series, as they produced an seemingly inexhaustible stream of high quality fast bowlers including Malcolm Marshall, considered by many to be the greatest fast bowler of all time. The length of that period of dominance had not been seen before or since and they decisively buried the label of ‘entertaining losers’.

Of course, during the time that Australia and England had the dominant bowlers, those two nations were delighted that they could intimidate other teams. Now that the shoe was on the other foot and it was the West Indies that had the fast bowlers everyone feared, they started whining that this type of bowling was unfair, not in the spirit of the game, ‘not cricket’, and so on. There were calls for placing limits on fast bowling, such as limiting the number of short pitched deliveries, the length of the bowlers run ups, or doctoring the pitches to make them slower, and so on.

Nowadays there are precautions and limits in that batters routinely wear protective helmets and padding and bowlers are limited in the number of bouncers they can bowl per over. This is a good thing because there is no reason for players to risk serious injury when playing a sport.

It was great to see the great West Indian players of that era, people who are household names in the cricket-loving world, recounting the events of that time. The documentary is worth watch just to see Viv Richards speaking. He analyzes the cricket and politics of that time with a sharp intelligence in a calm, measured voice. He has steely eyes that gives nothing away and you can see why he was not someone whom the Australian fast bowlers or Greig could intimidate. If you were casting a film, you could easily see him in the role of a ruthless killer, except for when he smiles. He recounts how the apartheid South African government, eager to break through the sports boycott against that country that had starved that cricket-loving country of international competition, had offered him a million dollars to come and play there, a huge sum even now but worth a lot more at that time. But he turned it down, though some other players in the West Indies (including Croft), the UK, Australia, and Sri Lanka did go on these ‘rebel’ tours and play there, facing sanctions back home for doing so. The one time in the film that Richards showed emotion was when he recounts how Desmond Tutu told him personally that Nelson Mandela, then in prison in South Africa, had wanted Tutu to tell Richards that he appreciated Richards’ action. The fact that this icon of the anti-apartheid struggle knew about him and his act of solidarity with those fighting racism clearly meant a lot to Richards.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    VICTORY CALYPSO -- Egbert Moore (“Lord Beginner”)

    Cricket lovely Cricket,
    At Lord’s where I saw it;
    Cricket lovely Cricket,
    At Lord’s where I saw it;
    Yardley tried his best
    But Goddard won the test.
    They gave the crowd plenty fun;
    Second Test and West Indies won.

    Chorus:With those two little pals of mine
    Ramadhin and Valentine.

  2. jazzlet says

    Thanks or the review Mano, this film is right up Mr Jazz’s street and it’s his 60th birthday on the 15th.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    The name I most clearly remember from my youth is Garfield Sobers. Great all-rounder and skipper, but finished his career before the Windies’ era of dominance.

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