Samir Chopra April 27, 2011

Once we were kings

It's not everyday a grown man can say, "Today, I'm going to cry"

It's not everyday a grown man can say, "Today, I'm going to cry". And yet, that prediction was one I could make with some confidence on Tuesday, April 26, as I headed into Manhattan to catch the North American premiere (at the Tribeca Film Festival) of Fire in Babylon, Stevan Riley's documentary tribute to the champion West Indies teams of the 1970s and 1980s. I wasn't wrong: I blinked, I swallowed hard; I felt a lump in my throat, and for many, many moments, was transported again to a time when the lithe body language of the West Indian cricketer was the final signature flourish on a display of cricketing skill unlikely to ever be seen again.

For cricket fans who came of age in the 1970s, those two words, "West Indies", still convey something of the aura of that most incredible of cricketing outfits, whose combination of power, panache and physicality ensures they will remain the benchmark setters for a long time yet. The rampant Australians of the late 1990s and early 2000s set new statistical benchmarks and enthralled us with their skills as well. But, they didn't have the on-field charisma of West Indies.

Can any modern cricket image match that of the West Indian slip cordon settling down, their hands plucking at their trousers to raise them ever so slightly as the quick sprinted in? Can any modern team match the the swagger, the bravado, of Lloyd's crew? The baggygreen wearing Aussies come the closest, and yet, they will themselves acknowledge, they had some way to go.

West Indies' steady downward decline since 1995 is one of cricket's saddest stories; while West Indian cricket has seen cycles in the past, it is not clear when it will emerge crest-bound from the current trough. For those whose exposure to West Indian cricket is limited to the post-1995 era, this film is essential viewing in understanding just what the cricketing world has lost, how it is immeasurably poorer for the passing of that era.

For anyone new (or old ) to the game, this documentary will help explain why cricket is simply not a game, why, to see it as "just a business" or "just entertainment" is to do severe violence to fans' and players' relationship to it. And it should help us see why formats of the game that defang the bowler by taking away a bowler's full armoury, make the game a less searching examination of a batsman's skills, and ultimately, provide a poorer spectacle. You'll understand, why, to use Mukul Kesavan's line, "spit-drying fear" can be good for the game.

The film is everything its trailer promises it is: a focus on Clive Lloyd's champion West Indies, taking as its starting point, its resurgence following its 5-1 shellacking by Greg Chappell's Australians in 1975-76, and moving on to the 1976 tour of England, the 1979-80 tour of Australia, and the 1984 blackwash series. The movie has an especially strong focus on the intimidatory aspect of the team's fast bowling resources, here understood as an expression of resurgent black power, resisting colonial and white subjugation, whether political, linguistic, or sporting.

There is plenty of dramatic cricket footage, especially of batsmen getting a severe working over. Indeed, if there is a weak point in the movie, it is that it seems to focus a little too much on the intimidation and not enough on all the other cricketing skills the West Indians possessed. There are other complaints. The footage sometimes does not match the narration; Gavaskar's walk-off in Melbourne 1981 is shown as backdrop for India's complaints about the 1976 Kingston Test; Lloyd is shown holding the World Cup as West Indies' win in Australia in 1979-80 is featured; still photographs show Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel and Andy Roberts left-handed; there are no interviews with opposing batsmen; there is little mention of the role of Frank Worrell. And so on. Purely as a documentary, the movie often suffers.

But one should be grateful someone has bothered to make a documentary about the mighty West Indies, and if, given the inevitable limitations of time and money, the filmmakers wanted to convey cricketing skill has a political context, then they have managed to do so. The essential reading for West Indian cricket still remains CLR James' Beyond a Boundary, but this documentary will get you started.

And don't let anyone, ever, ever, tell you cricket is just a game, just bat on ball.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on June 2, 2011, 22:57 GMT

    I saw the test at Madras in 83. Marshall running in, Gaekwad out, you only saw the ball when the slips threw it in the air, one down- out,within 2 overs, two down, next man in, Gavaskar at 4, He hooked his first ball , then scored 236. He batted for two days, in that series, he blitzed a stunning 97 in a previous Test, Difference between Gavaskar and the other Indian batsmen was like night and day. Marshall, Holding, Roberts, Winston Davis. I think Maninder Singh was the spinner back then, Richards scored in the 30's both innings, we all came to see Viv Richards, and even the Indians were disappointed when he got out.The Stadium was packed.

  • testli5504537 on June 1, 2011, 18:27 GMT

    Forever West Indies....We will definately rise again one day.

  • testli5504537 on May 27, 2011, 19:45 GMT

    Is this movie/documentary available in Canada? Does anyone know?

  • testli5504537 on May 18, 2011, 3:51 GMT

    I am happy that a film has been made about the West Indies when ther were the undidputed kings of cricket. It is good that our kids will get a chance to witness true cricket greatness - perhaps the greatest cricket that has ever been played or will be played. We can thank God for the producers who had the courage to produce the film and to the modern technology that made the production possible.

    Calvin Smith.

  • testli5504537 on May 15, 2011, 20:56 GMT


  • testli5504537 on May 12, 2011, 4:50 GMT

    i remember the 1st test series i watched live was West Indies V Pakistan in 1992. I was immediately intrigued by Walsh and Ambrose. My fascination for WI cricket caught up. Being an Indian, WI remained my fav team, Lara my fav batsman (even when they played India). I remember crying when Lara scored the winning runs in his epic knock against Australia in Barbados. I remember celebrating when Ambrose, Walsh and Rose destroyed India, again in Barbados. I started collecting pictures of WI players,former n present, in a scrap book. I obsessed over old sportstars n other magazines. what started off as a simple 200 page school note book is today a hard bound scrap book with over 800 pics of West Indian greats. I stopped collecting when Lara retired. Today, it hurts to watch them play. but when there is a match featuring Windies, i am drawn to the TV. I am hopeful of a resurgence esp given the talent.

  • testli5504537 on May 7, 2011, 7:00 GMT

    There is nothing worse than having to convince our younger generation here in the Caribbean that they are the bearers of a great cricketing heritage! Maybe this film might be able to instill something in them that I cannot through my stories of what I witnessed growing up as a proud young West Indian. The recording of accurate history is critical. A simple read of what Wisden has to say about the 1980 New Zealand Test Series, that we were a bunch of sore losers, tells less than half the truth! Fifteen years of dominance in World Cricket followed that debacle! The Sporting Gods unleashed a new alternative to the olde ways of thinking in this world. What the great African-American boxers and track athletes accomplished in the otherwise "white" dominated world of sport in the last century was complimented by the dominance of the great Uruguyan, Brazilian and Argentine football teams. This West indies team stands tall amongst the 20th century's great athletes and teams in this regard.

  • testli5504537 on May 3, 2011, 4:11 GMT

    @MK49 ...touche about your comments abt the ODI in Srinagar in 1983 . I never understood why the kashmiris were supporting the Windies so much ...guess we found out soon in the late 80s.

  • testli5504537 on April 30, 2011, 19:16 GMT

    I grew up in the West Indies during the 1970's. The teams of lloyd and Viv were legendary. The Greenidge square cut or one footed hook. Viv glancing through the oside from outsiede off stump. Lloyd back driving or hooking, Dujon flying through the air to catcha thunderbolt, Holding running to the wicket from the his long run, Garner towering over opposing batsmen. They were titans and I am not sure that I will see their like again. Those who never saw them whether live or on tv do not understand when they rate current teams or players as higher than them. The curent decline in West Indies cricket is even more heart rending and not properly understood by current players. I do not get the impression that they understand that to perform better than the best they have la prepare better than the best. The blame thei lack of performance on evereything else bt themselves. YThe first step in personal change is to acept responsibility for yourself and your own performance.

  • testli5504537 on April 30, 2011, 6:07 GMT

    Wow............a wonderfully well written of the best pieced of writing on cricinfo....EVER

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