October 04, 2011

Fire in Babylon

Cricket has often become a metaphor for politics- it did so in the 1930s when the famous Bodyline series became part of Australian national identity and Sir Donald Bradman the first Australian icon. Its done so several times on the sub continent- I was at the Oval Test Match this summer to see Tendulkar score 91 and saw a devotion to him that eclipsed the purely sporting. Fire in Babylon is about another such moment- when West Indian cricket came to dominate the sport for a twenty year period. Led by their thoughtful captain Clive Lloyd the West Indies moved from being a team of talented individuals to becoming a team of amazing players who bonded and played together like a team. Having been scarred by Australia in 1976, Lloyd found a group of fast bowlers- famous names that will endure- Holding, Croft, Garner, Marshall, Roberts and the rest who put the world's cricket teams to the sword. Just look at the clip above where Brian Close confronts HOlding at the Oval: you can feel the aggression in Holding's bowling.

Fire in Babylon tells the story of the transition from Calypso Cricket to this new more fiery and determined West Indian side. It puts it into the context of the racial and colonial politics of the late 20th Century. The story suggests that West Indian cricket was partially motivated by a national struggle to put the West Indies on the map. Independence was only managed in the late 1960s so the teams that played England in the seventies and eighties were teams that came from a very new set of countries. Furthermore they were filled with the ethos of the American civil rights movement. Interview after interview- particularly with Viv Richards- proclaims the importance of Luther King and of Bob Marley. These men when they came to England or Australia were racially abused by the crowds who would shout insults at them: some of which stunned a West Indian team brought up in a newly independent world. They knew about South Africa and events happening under Apartheid. They understood themselves in some sense as messengers from the third world, coming to beat the first world English and Australians. Part of the story of the cricket of that generation was as Michael Holding argues, putting their cricket up with English and Australian Cricket: saying to the English and Australians that West Indies Cricket had to be taken seriously. Fire in Babylon is metaphor used by a rastapharian member of the Wailers and friend of Richards to describe what the cricketers were doing. Running through the film are interviews with Richards’s teacher, with the Wailers, with others who were involved at the time.

This part of the story was definitely there- you can see it in the interviews with Roberts and Richards and the rest- they cared and thought about this stuff and were politically motivated. The film neglects though to develop two important angles on the cricket of the time. The first is that it doesn’t show that the West Indies were a clever cricket team. This wasn’t just a matter of getting together four guys who could bowl at 90 m.p.h: that’s happened before and will happen again, it was that these young men were intelligent cricketers. They could think as well as blast batsmen out. That cricket sense is actually not given the attention it should have: consequently you don’t develop during watching the film the admiration you should develop for these guys. They aren’t political philosophers- their political theory is bound to be less developed- but they were amazing cricketers so should be interviewed about how they worked out how to get batsmen out and intimidate bowlers. It wasn’t just brute strength. Secondly the political aspect isn’t allowed the complexity it needs. There are hints during the film that things were not so straight forward. Colin Croft and Clive Lloyd toured South Africa in the early eighties- they aren’t allowed to explain why. There is a political edge that some of the interviews belie. Furthermore lots of the politics comes from those who were hanging around Richards: its not to deny that it was there but equally the multiplicity of experience that went to make up that team has to be appreciated.

Fire in Babylon is ultimately disappointing because it doesn’t focus on the cricketers and the cricket enough. It presents a story whereby West Indian nationhood was remade by cricket- that’s partly true and its important that the West Indian team demonstrated that a third world, black team could play the white first world teams at their own game and win. It was a reminder that its not the colour of your skin, but in this case the content of your cricket character that determines your life. But its also important to note that the team was not a political movement but filled by individuals who had different perspectives on their times. What propelled them to the top wasn’t just their brute strength and speed, it was skill and intelligence. Ultimately these men were phenomenonal- just look at the clip above again, when you see Close duck and dive you are seeing the last of the cricketers of the 1950s dive out of history and when you see Holding bowl, you see the twenty first century. That the twenty first century cricketer was created not in England, nor in Australia or South Africa or India, but in a set of small islands out in the middle of the Caribean is testament to the brilliance of the individuals who performed that task. In that process they overcame the hideous racism of the cricket establishment and also assisted in the creation of nations in the Carribean (and it would be interesting to know how the different islands saw the team- something the film doesn't get into). Ultimately though I wanted more cricket and less politics.