West Indies Cricket June 28, 2011

Exhilarating, but one-dimensional

From Akash Kaware, Canada

From Akash Kaware, Canada

In 1995, West Indies lost their tag of undisputed champions of Test cricket to Australia in a seismic series and started the slide down a slippery slope of defeat and despair that continues to this day. For someone like me who started following cricket only in 1996, the current bunch of strugglers in maroon is a much more familiar sight than the juggernaut that steamrolled anything and everything that came in its way for a mind-boggling period of 15 years.

For young cricket fans and old, Fire in Babylon, the much-acclaimed documentary on Clive Lloyd’s great West Indies team, is a delicious glimpse into the rosy past of a proud group of cricketing nations. The best thing about the documentary is that it is not a bunch of doddery old cricket historians talking about this dominant team in flowery language. The speakers are the very people whom the documentary is about, the players and to some extent the fans. Viv Richards and Michael Holding are the show-stealers, but Lloyd, Andy Roberts, Derryck Murray, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge all make an appearance. Add to that a bunch of truly eccentric characters like Bunny Wailer, Frank I, some Calypso artists and groundsmen, and the narration of the documentary is representative of the spirit of West Indies cricket in a way a historian or statistician could never have been. In fact, when one groundsman pronounces, “When West Indies lose, we cry tears maan”, you can’t help but be moved and wonder how many tears he must be shedding these days.

And then of course there are those unforgettable images; Michael Holding with that graceful run-up, which was a thing of beauty to everyone other than the hapless batsman at the other end; Richards, helmetless and chewing gum, getting hit on the face by a bouncer, and hooking the very next ball for six; Malcolm Marshall bowling with a broken arm in a plaster and batting with one hand; That famous picture of Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner together, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Each time a batsman had his jaws, nose, ribs, hands or other features rearranged - and there are plenty of such instances through the 88-minute documentary - the watcher is sure to wince, yet feel a visceral pleasure. One can only imagine what went through the minds of the batsmen themselves.

Exhilarating as it is to watch, the documentary is not without its flaws. The cultural impact of the success of the West Indies team and cricket’s role in bringing together those independent countries in the Caribbean is undeniable. But the aspect of ‘Black Power’, the portrayal of the West Indian success as a payback for years of oppression by their colonial masters is a tad overplayed.

Many players in the documentary talk about taking out their anger on the ball and the batsmen, but the fact is, no amount of anger can make a batsman play like Richards did at The Oval in 1976 or Greenidge did at Lord’s in 1984. They could play like that because they were supremely talented players, their skills honed by hours of practice. After all, when a batsman is facing a bowler bowling at 90mph, if he is thinking about the weight of history rather than the ball itself, it is hard to imagine him scoring any runs at all, forget about breaking records!

You can try to find a higher political meaning in all events with the passage of time, but in this case, the documentary attempts to attribute the phenomenal success of the team to socio-political factors, rather than more believable ones like outstanding skills with bat and ball, and years of hard work. Ditto with the intimidating bowling. Throughout the documentary, fear and intimidation are a common theme. Batsmen are shown hopping all over the place to avoid bumpers, many are seen getting hit and poor old Brian Close, an elderly, but awfully brave English batsman is seen getting a thorough working over from Holding.

Yet there was more to the West Indian attack than bouncers. Roberts was, in Sunil Gavaskar’s words, the cleverest fast bowler there ever was. When Holding took those 14 wickets on a featherbed of a track at the Oval in 1976, he did so by sending those batsmen to the pavilion, not to the hospital. In fact, a look at the scorecard of the particular match would tell you that of those 14 wickets, 12 were either bowled or LBW, suggesting a bowler targeting the stumps rather than batsmen’s heads. Marshall was not exactly a brainless brute either. He, along with Dennis Lillee, was probably the most complete fast bowler the game has ever seen. To the uninitiated, it would appear that the West Indian quicks were all about intimidation. But they were more, so much more.

Also, the portrayal of the West Indies team before 1975 as ‘Calypso cricketers’, a bunch of players who could entertain but not win, was shocking. The tour of Australia in 1975-76, which resulted in a chastening 5-1 defeat, largely the handiwork of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson, is said to have galvanized the team to come together, and go on to conquer everything there was there was to conquer on a cricket field. However, it must be noted that though West Indies became truly invincible under Lloyd, they had been winning more than they had been losing since the time of Frank Worrell, who doesn’t find more than a passing mention. The 1976 shellacking of England is said to be the ultimate triumph against their old colonial masters, when in fact, they had beaten England in England in 1963, 1966 and 1973 as well.

A movie might be forgiven for taking dramatic liberties, a documentary cannot. However, for all its faults that might irk a knowledgeable cricket fan, the documentary still makes for delightful viewing. After all, when the subjects themselves are so fascinating, you hardly need to create drama. Sometimes true stories are enough to give you goosebumps.

Click here for ESPNcricinfo's review of the documentary.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on August 13, 2011, 3:05 GMT

    The team of the 70s-90s had its origins in the 30s with George Headley & Learie Constantine leading the way. In the 40s it was the 3Ws who came to their peak at the same time and, with two great spinners, annhililated England IN ENGLAND in 1950 - YES 1950!!. And they did it with no quick bowlers. Of course, with these players growing old together, there was a slump but that was only briefly until Sobers, Smith (rip), Kanhai, Hunte, Hall, Gibbs, etc formed the basis of a new team. The turning point was that 1960/61 series in Australia - yes, "lost" with "calypso cricket". But who was the new captain for that series? Focus on him because it was HE, not Lloyd or Richards, who was the real power behind turning West Indies from a parochial collection of islands into a real united force. Lloyd & Richards, bless them, stood on the shoulders of a giant with an endless supply of quick bowlers inspired by Wesley Hall or Charlie Griffith. NEVER underestimate Frank Worrell - the real hero.

  • testli5504537 on July 26, 2011, 17:41 GMT

    As a West Indian who followed our team during that period, I was surprised by the political twist in the story. It was satisfying to beat England because it was their game, not because they were our colonial masters. We understood what the performance of the team meant to West Indian immigrants in England but I was never aware of any political twist to our cricket.

  • testli5504537 on July 9, 2011, 12:55 GMT

    dr sk jain of india is nicest captaincy betterr than andrew strauss

  • testli5504537 on July 3, 2011, 21:08 GMT

    how can a whole documentary about west indies completely ignore all the indian players who represented them. what about ramadhin, kanhai and kallicharran who were the best 3 in those days. they only concentrate on the african players. this is what causes tension and lack of unity on our cricket. why should indo-caribbeans support west indies, when we are not valued or treated the same???

  • testli5504537 on July 3, 2011, 4:28 GMT

    I'm not sure how a team that lost two series in almost two decades can lose their number one ranking. I haven't seen the film but this was the greates sporting team of all time. No team has evr dominated for so long!

  • testli5504537 on July 1, 2011, 16:45 GMT

    how did w.i. batsmen fared against their bowlers in domestic matches? no big deal. viv for one used to bash them in shell shield matches and the big four- and more- in the nets.anyway hats off to jimmy amarnath in 1983, border in 1984, crowe in 1985.they did well in the w.i. also kepler wessels in 84-85 in australia.gooch also deserve mention.most others used to shit in their pants. dujon complained about a lot of farting taking place.

  • testli5504537 on July 1, 2011, 3:47 GMT

    @ Arnab. Let me answer your query as to how a WI batsman tears apart WI bowler. It should not necessarily be in English county game. It happens in our lovely Carrbean. WI is the only regional team playing tests/ODI/T20 in the world. The team is conssted of several independent states. Trini, Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados and small islands like Antgua. They are independent states conglomerated to play cricket as a unified team. It is like India, Pakistan, BD and SL playing as SOUTH ASIAN team. Then these states have their own teams and they compete in a regional competetion . Say Bhajans playng Jamaica or Guyana is as intense as or more intense than ICC international matches at times. Can you imagine VIV RICHARDS tearing apart Malcom Marshal, Lara murdering Walsh or Kalicharan hitting Andy Roberts off the park a. That happens only in Carrbean and in 70s Guyana, Trini, Barbados , Jamaic and Antgua teams were more powerful than many of the ICC recognised test teams. VIVA CARRIBEAN UNITY

  • testli5504537 on June 30, 2011, 20:04 GMT

    @lankansikh That is a great point. I had not thought of them not mentioning the East Indian players.

  • testli5504537 on June 30, 2011, 17:33 GMT

    Everybody has a right to frame his history any way he wants to. For any sincere cricket follower, the gaps in the narrative arc of this documentary will be obvious. Since the players themselves were directly involved, what they chose not to say was at least as important as what they did say on screen - about the East Indian dimension to WI cricket, the welcome and success enjoyed by the same players in the English and Aussie domestic Cricket, and of course the already considerable and glorious history of WI cricket before Lloyd. As it stands, the film is more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with Cricket but able to grasp the broad strokes racial and post-colonial motivations attributed to Lloyd's team (read US audiences). Hence the rather jarring bit in there equating Viv to Ali. Really? And what about Botham's refusal to go to SA because he was friends with Viv. Cricket lovers already know the greatness of that team did not have such simplistic underpinnings. Expect an Oscar run.

  • testli5504537 on June 30, 2011, 9:52 GMT

    Sorry dont agree -the socio-political background played a part in as much as chaneeling agression into WI sport. This was an important part of the fast bowling 4 man attack. To take wickets as fast bowler you have to have aggression even if LBW or bowled is the outcome, the method is to soften and intimidate witfast short pitched bowlingh

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