Once we were kings
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