Fire in Babylon

Sam Collins reviews
Fire in Babylon
By Stevan Riley
DVD, £9.99

“WE DIDN’T go out to hit people. But people got hit.” Cricket has known plenty of good teams but the West Indian sides of the late 1970s and 1980s still make people shudder.

Fire in Babylon is a marvellous, rhythmic, thumping throwback to that era, when batsmen were unarmoured and bowlers did their best to knock their unhelmeted heads off. No one tried harder than a generation of West Indian quicks newly focused by independence and civil rights and galvanised by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. Stevan Riley’s film charts the rise of West Indies from ‘Calypso Collapso’ to ‘Blackwash’ and a decade-and-a-half of dominance.

West Indies begin the film as soft-touches, entertainers humiliated in Australia in 1975 by the aggression of Thomson and Lillee. Lloyd vows never again, and begins building his own “bowling machinery” to “obliterate, rub into the ground and decimate” the opposition. While we know what happened next, Riley’s success is setting the rise of that team against the political upheaval of the time to create a film that is uplifting, inspiring, funny and, given West Indies’ current state, poignant.

Fire in Babylon projects a side with motives beyond winning games of cricket. They are fighting a war against a history of colonial oppression, with Richards’ bat as their sword, and the ball as a bullet. Richards is interviewed alongside Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge & Co, and speaks with a compelling and renewed passion to justify the film’s comparison with Bob Marley. Thirty years later it still matters as much as Fire in Babylon’s religious connotations suggest.

There are omissions – Frank Worrell (West Indies’ first black captain), Garfield Sobers, Wes Hall and others from West Indies’ past barely warrant a mention, while time constrictions necessitate that the film motors through a turbulent period that included Kerry Packer’s World Series and the rebel tours to South Africa. There is no mention of West Indies’ 1980 tour to England, while it suits the narrative for scenes of the 1984 ‘Blackwash’ to concentrate on the ‘slaves whipping the masters’ rather than the reality of a poor England side.

But Riley is more storyteller than a stickler for cricketing detail, and in Fire in Babylon he rips a great yarn that will appeal to more than just cricket-lovers. His film is a visual thrill – archive footage and colourful graphics are juxtaposed with moody black-and-white photographs and bound by a reggae soundtrack that keeps the film moving at a Holding-esque pace. Of the many talking heads, the lighter contributions of Bunny Wailer and other Caribbean performers complement the ex-players though none can match Andy Roberts for comic one-liners.

At times the bouncers pack as much comic punch as the words, because at the time the rest of world didn’t see the joke. Now, when genuine quicks are rare beasts, it is pure nostalgia. Rarely can brutality have been so appealing as Holding’s run-up in slow-mo.

Fire in Babylon is a very good documentary but above all it is the story of what makes a great sports team: leadership and talent underpinned by a common cause.

Sam Collins is a former web editor of The Wisden Cricketer and one half of video bloggers The Chuck Fleetwood-Smiths, who will appear on this summer

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