Exhilarating, but one-dimensional
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.