Samir Chopra April 27, 2011

Once we were kings

It's not everyday a grown man can say, "Today, I'm going to cry"
20

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

  • waterbuffalo 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.

  • cato on June 1, 2011, 18:27 GMT

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

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

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

  • Calvin Smith 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.

  • Stanley A. George III on May 15, 2011, 20:56 GMT

    RALLY 'ROUND DE WEST INDIES!!! 'NOUGH SAID!!!

  • ravi shankar 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.

  • andre reyes 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.

  • Anonymous 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.

  • Nigel Andrew Logan 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.

  • Ali Shah on April 30, 2011, 6:07 GMT

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

  • waterbuffalo 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.

  • cato on June 1, 2011, 18:27 GMT

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

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

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

  • Calvin Smith 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.

  • Stanley A. George III on May 15, 2011, 20:56 GMT

    RALLY 'ROUND DE WEST INDIES!!! 'NOUGH SAID!!!

  • ravi shankar 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.

  • andre reyes 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.

  • Anonymous 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.

  • Nigel Andrew Logan 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.

  • Ali Shah on April 30, 2011, 6:07 GMT

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

  • Valerio on April 29, 2011, 3:29 GMT

    Samir, A very timely article from yourself. Welcome back son.

  • John Duchaussee on April 28, 2011, 23:35 GMT

    There was nothing like the first morning of a test match at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad. It's slightly overcast, the hills of the Northern Range in the background,the opposition sent in to bat and Roberts and Holding striding in with the new ball. The keeper and slips looking like maybe a mile away from the stumps. LLoyd, Richards, Greenidge, Richardson at slip-Garner in the Gully-Haynes at forward short leg. Still sends shivers down my spine.

  • bsingh on April 28, 2011, 13:12 GMT

    Please sit the current WI crop and put em to watch it!!

  • mk49 on April 28, 2011, 5:39 GMT

    @ Ali Khan - I remember watching that ODI in '83 - one of my first games on TV, and remember that while the Kashmiris in the crowd supported the Windies- they appeared to do so because they hated the Indians. It became clear soon why.

    The real blow came in Kanpur though - when Mako bowled an unbelievable spell on a flat-track reducing India to 7 for 4 (Sunny gone for zero - bat knocked out his hand). In the Delhi test that followed Sunny counter-attacked Mako, Holding and Co - almost scoring a century before lunch. Somewhere in the Doordarshan archives - there is footage of those two tests.

  • Satadru Sen on April 28, 2011, 3:08 GMT

    I liked the film a lot - there were moments when I could hardly believe that I was seeing all that incredible footage on the big screen. Technically, it's mostly very good. But as a documentary, it leaves something to be desired, because it flat out refuses to ask hard questions. For instance, did Holding in fact bowl beamers at Gavaskar and Amarnath in the Kingston Test in 1976? Since so much of the focus was on intimidatory bowling, it would have been interesting to actually ask the bowlers about the ethics of bowling bouncers at tail-enders, or about what bowling five or six bouncers an over does to the game. Likewise, it would have been interesting to discuss the introduction of helmets. The really dramatic moments in cricket - like the Bodyline series and the West Indian dominance of 1976-1995 - matter because they change the game, and because a controversy has at least two sides to it. The film-makers were a little too keen on making this a simple fairytale, I thought.

  • Ali Khan on April 27, 2011, 13:20 GMT

    I saw them live in Srinagar, Kashmir. The first ODI after India had won the World Cup in 1983. We ( Kashmiris) supported them so much, the Windies thought they were in the Caribbeans. I saw Marshall running in with the new ball to Kris Srikanth. I was in the enclosure at the Pavilion end and I hardly could see the ball, the moment it was released....went like a bullet to Dujon. I still wonder how Srikanth saw it. I still remember how Greenidge would square cut and "flick off his toes" over square leg for a six. They were a dream team, the swagger, the flair, the charm...you name it

  • Ashok Sridharan on April 27, 2011, 12:08 GMT

    For fans like me, who started following the game in the mid-90s, West Indies are a side that have just hobbled from one thrashing to the other ever since we can remember. I have only heard about the great West Indies sides and seen a handful of (really short) videos on youtube. Hopefully this documentary will help people like me appreciate what West Indies cricket once was.

  • manish kumar joshi on April 27, 2011, 8:31 GMT

    It was a great era of cricket.there were no limitations in cricket for both batting and bowling side. Now rules are in favour of batsmen and bowlers now had to use their skills in a limitations.In gloden era of west Indies cricket there were no boundation to deliver number of bouncers in a over. No boundation to hight and not limitations of fielders. Mighty wsest indies bowlers had their own regime in cricket and batsmen like sunil gavaskar met them without helmets. That was a aura of cricket and loved to seen. Fotunatelly I got approtunity to watched this aura of cricket.

  • Bala Yugandar on April 27, 2011, 8:17 GMT

    Contd-and the ferocious fast bowlers 'pride' coming at the batsmen one somehow felt the world is in order! Their raw talent was too much and too good to render sledging utterly wasteful and demeaning to their dignity! Even the great Lillee n Thommo firm suffer in comparison. Another thing you rightly point out and I passionately argue with my fellow die-hards is that.Aussies of late 90's and 2000's vintage have superior statistcal benchmarks but they could never come closer to Windies charm/dominance;all teams/spectators felt privileged to just compete with them! Any great innings against them was measured in gold-Sunny is an obvious candidate whose luster shone in the cauldron of pace,Jimmy cemented his legacy in true cricket lovers' hearts with his hooks and 598 golden runs, lesser known but regal...Wasim Raja deeply respected for his exploits against these very men.in essence Windies of that era enriched the sport they played, accorded near immortality to even the valiant opponents!

  • Bala Yugandar on April 27, 2011, 7:57 GMT

    Sameer! You indeed have managed to bring a big lump in my throat with your review or sharing heartfelt experience. Ever since Rob Steen ,methinks, wrote about this documentary i searched all over youtube to get any snatches without luck...I will watch it at the first chance. My exposure to mighty,a word born to describe them as it were,Windies was early 83 in the West Indies. The pictures in Sportstar and hush, hush conversations in amongst the already senior cricket crowd already made them all conquering, exotic, fearsome warriors in my mind. When Roberts took 4 wickets in 1 over in Jamaica and Macko plastered us in Trinidad...the commentary itself sent chills. Then post World Cup that Kanpur spell of Macko.....ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh....million times i thought how did we win against them in WC. Just evoked aweeeeeee....allround natural athletes, did everything with joy and swagger and their 4 pronged pace literally caused heart attacks. With supercat at the helm, modern roman hero Viv...con

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  • Bala Yugandar on April 27, 2011, 7:57 GMT

    Sameer! You indeed have managed to bring a big lump in my throat with your review or sharing heartfelt experience. Ever since Rob Steen ,methinks, wrote about this documentary i searched all over youtube to get any snatches without luck...I will watch it at the first chance. My exposure to mighty,a word born to describe them as it were,Windies was early 83 in the West Indies. The pictures in Sportstar and hush, hush conversations in amongst the already senior cricket crowd already made them all conquering, exotic, fearsome warriors in my mind. When Roberts took 4 wickets in 1 over in Jamaica and Macko plastered us in Trinidad...the commentary itself sent chills. Then post World Cup that Kanpur spell of Macko.....ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh....million times i thought how did we win against them in WC. Just evoked aweeeeeee....allround natural athletes, did everything with joy and swagger and their 4 pronged pace literally caused heart attacks. With supercat at the helm, modern roman hero Viv...con

  • Bala Yugandar on April 27, 2011, 8:17 GMT

    Contd-and the ferocious fast bowlers 'pride' coming at the batsmen one somehow felt the world is in order! Their raw talent was too much and too good to render sledging utterly wasteful and demeaning to their dignity! Even the great Lillee n Thommo firm suffer in comparison. Another thing you rightly point out and I passionately argue with my fellow die-hards is that.Aussies of late 90's and 2000's vintage have superior statistcal benchmarks but they could never come closer to Windies charm/dominance;all teams/spectators felt privileged to just compete with them! Any great innings against them was measured in gold-Sunny is an obvious candidate whose luster shone in the cauldron of pace,Jimmy cemented his legacy in true cricket lovers' hearts with his hooks and 598 golden runs, lesser known but regal...Wasim Raja deeply respected for his exploits against these very men.in essence Windies of that era enriched the sport they played, accorded near immortality to even the valiant opponents!

  • manish kumar joshi on April 27, 2011, 8:31 GMT

    It was a great era of cricket.there were no limitations in cricket for both batting and bowling side. Now rules are in favour of batsmen and bowlers now had to use their skills in a limitations.In gloden era of west Indies cricket there were no boundation to deliver number of bouncers in a over. No boundation to hight and not limitations of fielders. Mighty wsest indies bowlers had their own regime in cricket and batsmen like sunil gavaskar met them without helmets. That was a aura of cricket and loved to seen. Fotunatelly I got approtunity to watched this aura of cricket.

  • Ashok Sridharan on April 27, 2011, 12:08 GMT

    For fans like me, who started following the game in the mid-90s, West Indies are a side that have just hobbled from one thrashing to the other ever since we can remember. I have only heard about the great West Indies sides and seen a handful of (really short) videos on youtube. Hopefully this documentary will help people like me appreciate what West Indies cricket once was.

  • Ali Khan on April 27, 2011, 13:20 GMT

    I saw them live in Srinagar, Kashmir. The first ODI after India had won the World Cup in 1983. We ( Kashmiris) supported them so much, the Windies thought they were in the Caribbeans. I saw Marshall running in with the new ball to Kris Srikanth. I was in the enclosure at the Pavilion end and I hardly could see the ball, the moment it was released....went like a bullet to Dujon. I still wonder how Srikanth saw it. I still remember how Greenidge would square cut and "flick off his toes" over square leg for a six. They were a dream team, the swagger, the flair, the charm...you name it

  • Satadru Sen on April 28, 2011, 3:08 GMT

    I liked the film a lot - there were moments when I could hardly believe that I was seeing all that incredible footage on the big screen. Technically, it's mostly very good. But as a documentary, it leaves something to be desired, because it flat out refuses to ask hard questions. For instance, did Holding in fact bowl beamers at Gavaskar and Amarnath in the Kingston Test in 1976? Since so much of the focus was on intimidatory bowling, it would have been interesting to actually ask the bowlers about the ethics of bowling bouncers at tail-enders, or about what bowling five or six bouncers an over does to the game. Likewise, it would have been interesting to discuss the introduction of helmets. The really dramatic moments in cricket - like the Bodyline series and the West Indian dominance of 1976-1995 - matter because they change the game, and because a controversy has at least two sides to it. The film-makers were a little too keen on making this a simple fairytale, I thought.

  • mk49 on April 28, 2011, 5:39 GMT

    @ Ali Khan - I remember watching that ODI in '83 - one of my first games on TV, and remember that while the Kashmiris in the crowd supported the Windies- they appeared to do so because they hated the Indians. It became clear soon why.

    The real blow came in Kanpur though - when Mako bowled an unbelievable spell on a flat-track reducing India to 7 for 4 (Sunny gone for zero - bat knocked out his hand). In the Delhi test that followed Sunny counter-attacked Mako, Holding and Co - almost scoring a century before lunch. Somewhere in the Doordarshan archives - there is footage of those two tests.

  • bsingh on April 28, 2011, 13:12 GMT

    Please sit the current WI crop and put em to watch it!!

  • John Duchaussee on April 28, 2011, 23:35 GMT

    There was nothing like the first morning of a test match at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad. It's slightly overcast, the hills of the Northern Range in the background,the opposition sent in to bat and Roberts and Holding striding in with the new ball. The keeper and slips looking like maybe a mile away from the stumps. LLoyd, Richards, Greenidge, Richardson at slip-Garner in the Gully-Haynes at forward short leg. Still sends shivers down my spine.

  • Valerio on April 29, 2011, 3:29 GMT

    Samir, A very timely article from yourself. Welcome back son.