Fire in Babylon (2011)
Recently, we have seen a return of live sport to our TV screens, with (rightly) no fans in attendance and additional safety precautions in place – sadly, though, the Tour de France is not happening in July. The return of live football with crowd noises piped in is surreal, and as an Arsenal fan, has been decidedly mixed. On Sunday, Formula 1 returned to our tv screens. These are all very well and good, but for me personally, Wednesday 8th July is the most invested I have been in the return of a sport so far, cricket, as the West Indies’ tour of England begins. I know I am pitching this to the wrong demographic, and the aim of this post is not to convert anyone into suddenly becoming a cricket fanatic – it is only to recommend a fantastic documentary; Fire in Babylon, released in 2011.
I’ve written on this blog before (about ‘The Grudge’, a book about the Scotland vs England rugby rivalry) in which I mentioned two things that are worth repeating. Firstly, cricket is the only thing I am ‘English’ about. It is the closest you will come to seeing me sporting the cross of St George on any motoring vehicle/out the window of my place of residence (worth remembering St George was a Roman soldier born in modern-day Turkey, and is the patron saint of more nations than only England).
For example, if I listed the greatest cricket experiences I’ve had as a fan (Ashes series 2005, Cardiff Ashes test day 5 2009, Cricket World Cup final 2019, Ben Stokes and Jack Leach’s innings in the Ashes at Headingley in 2019), this seeps over into other sports, too. For example, in our Rugby World Cup sweepstake, I really didn’t want to draw Australia, because you have to support them then. Murphy’s law, I drew Australia, and honestly – completely different sport – l but I just couldn’t bring myself to supporting them.
Secondly, I referenced a David Cameron speech in which gave examples of the diversity of Britain in sporting terms (which is overshadowed now by a notable mishap), but in which he expressly mentioned the West Indies cricket team. It is worth noting early on that the popularity of the West Indies cricket team in England is, at least in part, due to the Windrush generation, and for as much as I love cricket for giving me some of the greatest (and disappointing) moments of my sporting fandom, you can’t overlook the sport’s ties to colonialism.
As a peek behind the scenes in the law school, we have weekly Zoom tea and coffee events, in which staff explain what they’ve been up to. This descends into explaining what programmes we have been watching, and recommending them to each other. The current favourite is ‘The Last Dance’ on Netflix, a documentary series about the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s – a note on a sporting dynasty. At the time of writing this, I’m only 2 episodes in.
However, the return of international cricket and a documentary series about a sporting dynasty reminded me of ‘Fire in Babylon’, about the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. What the documentary does incredibly effectively is convey the importance of Caribbean culture to the game of cricket, and the importance of cricket to the Caribbean in having a number of different islands coming together and competing together. It’s not a documentary about runs, wickets, and the rules of the game. It’s about establishing an identity.
A few cliff notes for context/what happens. Prior to the 1970s, the West Indies players were often described as ‘calypso cricketers’, meaning that they would be entertaining to watch, but wouldn’t really get results. The early 1970s saw new talent emerge, but they were operating as a collection of individuals, not a team, as such. In 1975-76, they toured Australia, and were humiliated, losing the series 5-1.
What characterised the Australian attack was fast bowling, and the use of short-pitched aggressive bowling (imagine trying to defend solid balls bouncing past your head at 90+ mph back when protection was nowhere near today’s standards). The West Indies cricket captain, Clive Lloyd decided that an emphasis on developing lightning quick fast bowling was the way to revive the team’s fortunes. Fortunately enough, Lloyd was able to call upon the services of Michael Holding (with the ominous nickname of ‘Whispering Death’), Andy Roberts and Colin Croft.
A turning point for the team, and West Indies in general, came when the team toured England in 1976. The tour became infamous for a few things – the first, of note, is the incendiary comment which England captain, Tony Greig, made before the series, that “if they get on top, they are magnificent cricketers, but if they are down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of [Brian] Closey and a few others to make them grovel.” Safe to say I’m embarrassed by that and it was 13 years before I could be embarrassed by it.
In one sentence, Greig conveyed arrogance and completely disrespected his opposition. The documentary discusses the motivational impact that this had on the team. We’ll politely say that just from a sporting perspective, that was a mistake. The traditional English approach to bowling isn’t really about pace – they are more suited to swing and seam bowling, trying to deceive the batsman. You’ve already got supremely fast bowlers to face. You’ve now pissed them off.
This led to the second thing of note. There are two ways to look at this. I’ll be as neutral as I can, and say that the series was characterised by intimidatory bowling. If you were a 1970s die hard England supporter, you would say that these tactics, in which you thought you were being targeted for injury, were not in the spirit of the game. If you were in the Windies camp, you were playing within the rules and were doing what you needed to do to win a game – you did not want to hurt anyone, but stun them into making a mistake was a fair tactic.
This led to a spell of bowling which honestly, you couldn’t pay me enough money in the world to face. Brian Close, then aged 45, was selected to open the batting for England (a difficult position to play, because the ball is at its quickest, and moves around the most). In the 2nd innings of the 3rd test, the balls he was facing were absolutely lethal. He's also playing without an arm guard, or a helmet. He’s revered for it – stiff upper lip Yorkshireman survived two and a half hours of peril. Safe to say it wasn’t a day for scoring many runs, either. There is also consideration of the idea that these tactics were OK for Australia, but not for the West Indies.
In addition to highlighting more talent which came through the ranks (Viv Richards, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Gordon Greenidge) the rest of the documentary charts the subsequent political discussions around payment, a trouble which still causes problems to this day. It assesses the impact of Kerry Packer in 1977, and what must be one of the darkest days in the game, the ‘rebel’ tours to South Africa during apartheid, in which cricketers were paid a lot of money to play the game in the country, during a boycott.
Even after the mid-1980s period of dominance, coming into the 1990s and 2000s players such as Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Brian Lara, Shiv Chanderpaul and Chris Gayle broke through onto the international stage. I was slightly too young for some of these players, but it’s a fascinating watch, and you can’t help but respect them for what they have been able to achieve.
All good things, though, must come to an end. And sadly, the West Indies are nowhere near the force they once were, at least in test cricket (it is a different story for one day cricket, and the 20/20 game). Pay disputes continue, and they have fallen in the international test rankings to 8th – only ahead of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. In this series, England will have their traditional batting collapses and struggles every now and again, but it should be a relatively straightforward series win. I may have jinxed that now, and I’ll sulk if I have, but actually it wouldn’t be a bad thing. The dynasty of the Chicago Bulls came to an end. The Arsenal Invincibles are no more. But you just cling on to the hope that there will be a revival for the West Indies, particularly after watching this.