October 27, 2010

Whatever happened to West Indian pride?

A new documentary captures the ambition and drive that fuelled the West Indies of the 80s. Today's team does not carry the same historical baggage

"Who is this film for?" As obvious as the question was, it was not, perhaps, quite obvious enough. Why else would it have to be asked twice?

Hinting as it does at self-destruction, Fire in Babylon is the somewhat deceptive title of Stevan Riley's terrific documentary about the West Indies teams that, between the first day of the eighties and May 3, 1995, ruled cricket with an enlightened despotism unmatched, arguably, by any sporting team of any persuasion, in any era. Sports Illustrated, as likely to run an article on cricket as publish a Russian recipe for burgers, bracketed them with the San Francisco 49ers and Liverpool FC as the Team of the Eighties; imagine what accolades might have been bestowed had the editors been able to tell their byes from their leg-byes.

Nor might it seem altogether promising that the director of Fire in Babylon is a pasty-faced Oxford University graduate who studied Chinese, dallied with advertising, shot his first documentary about the underground music scene in war-torn Sarajevo, and turned his second, about a quintet of ambitious Oxford boxers, into a comedy. Fear not. Riley offers us a full x-ray of sporting greatness: the historical and contemporary context, the driving force and the mindset, the soaring talents and the staggering feats. Anyone with the vaguest interest in sport should see it, but none more urgently than the players whose misfortune it has been to follow in those colossal footsteps.

"It's not my gig and I'm not a diehard cricket fan," Riley admitted with disarming and refreshing candour during the early stages of filming, "but if I wasn't inspired by it, I wouldn't do it. I want to look at the civil rights movement, and emancipation, the ancillary stories, and find the universal themes beyond the sport itself." The proof that he has succeeded admirably could be found at the Leicester Square premiere last week: in the applause that rang out from the multi-racial mid-afternoon house and in the ensuing q&a, when every question fired at Riley was prefaced by a heartfelt expression of appreciation or even gratitude. Somewhat pointedly, two members of the audience wondered whether the West Indies board intended to show the film to the current trans-island representatives. Sticking steadfastly to his seat on the fence, Riley said the board had requested a copy, but felt unable to elaborate.

Much if not quite all of Caribbean life is here. The talking heads, naturally and fittingly, are led by Clive, Viv and Mikey, but the storytellers/celebrants also include Bunny Wailer, Lord Short Shirt and other musical figures, their reflections nestling cheek-by-jowl with long-unseen action from World Series Cricket and Tests in the Caribbean, all set to the reggae pulse of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Gregory Isaacs. The most bracing aspect is the frankness with which the players, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge and Colin Croft in particular, describe the motivation of the black man in a post-colonial world.

"The things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed"
Calypsonian David Rudder on the difference between the 80s and today

Time and again, the word "calypso" is uttered, almost spat out, with understandably bitter contempt. Wielded against them as it was, as a dismissive shorthand for a state of mind in which aimless, harmless fun took precedence over the serious business of winning, Lord Kitchener's fabled homage to "those little pals o' mine/Ramadhin and Valentine" held scant appeal for the more militant generation that followed.

While researching a biography of Desmond Haynes, I asked Clive Lloyd to pinpoint the turning of the tide. The presence on his dressing table of Eric Williams' Inward Hunger - The Education of a Prime Minister hinted at the measured nature of the response. "In my first Test against England in 1968, Jeff Jones called Wes Hall a 'black bastard' or something," Lloyd said. "Wes got uptight at first, then realised he shouldn't let it get to him. You mustn't let these guys get through to you. The minute they upset you they've done their job, because you're going to give away your hand. You're going to want to hit that ball so hard you're going to hit it too hard, so you're not going to time it. The best thing is to stay there and grind those fielders into the dust. That was the West Indies of old - calypso, Carry on Flamboyant, not putting a lot of thought into your cricket. That's how they used to get us out years ago - probably call out some racist remarks and then you get uptight and give your hand away. "After that 1975-76 trip to Australia, we began to change, to get it together. People think it's payback time but that's just so stupid. It's not a matter of paying back. People don't understand the importance of cricket in the West Indies. We were showing people. We were showing the world that we can be just as good as anyone else. That's all. It's a quiet demonstration, if you like."

Helpfully, the first tour after that 5-1 drubbing in Australia saw the England captain engage tongue before brain. "When Tony Greig said they'd make us grovel, I don't know if he understood the meaning of the word," reckoned Lloyd, "but here you had a white South African telling you he was going to make you grovel, and the sort of pride that is in players today made people just go out there and make him eat his words." Fire in Babylon, which concludes with a scroll through the unparalleled run of 29 Test series strung together by Lloyd and Richards' sides, is the tale of how those words, and others of a similar hue, were force-fed to a succession of impotent opposition camps by men for whom collective pride, regional and racial, was everything.

NOW, 35 YEARS LATER, West Indies are preparing to tour Sri Lanka, solidarity dented by the refusal of Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard to sign their central contracts. At face value at least, the commitment to the regional cause - one demanded, lest we forget, of no other set of players - is less than complete. Riley acknowledges that times, once again, have changed. "This film," he has asserted, "is about a very specific generation - the generation that overlapped the era of independence. Suddenly, you had this group of youngsters who want to make a firm statement that they'd broken with their colonial past and wanted to put the West Indies on the map. This surge of ambition was, in many ways, peculiar to that generation."

Which is why, 15 years after the empire was finally brought down by Steve Waugh's grimly devoted double-hundred in Jamaica, the ambition is less apparent, the motives so readily questioned. "We need to recognise that the nationalist passions of an earlier time have been significantly weakened and cannot be rekindled by patriotic speeches so long as the actions of the state on a daily basis question its own relevance." Those words were written for The New Ball, a decade ago, by Professor Hilary Beckles, who has articulated the attitudes of the post-Richards generation as ably as CLR James promoted the case for Frank Worrell's ascent to the West Indies captaincy half a century ago. Now, with consistent form a tiny, shrinking image in the rear-view mirror, finances at a near-subterranean ebb, and relations between players and board still light years from uniformly cordial, Beckles' sentiments ring truer than ever.

As do more recent ones conveyed by the world's best-known calypsonian, David Rudder, composer of "Rally 'Round the West Indies", the unifying anthem for a fractured region. To Rudder, attested Joy AI Mahabir in an academic paper entitled "Rhythm and Class Struggle: The Calypsoes of David Rudder", calypso is less about the joy of music than using rhythm "as an ideological language that can be used to engage in class struggle by conveying progressive ideas and inspiring progressive actions". Interviewed last year by Gary Steckles of the Toronto Star, Rudder alighted on the cause, as he sees it, of the cricketers' precipitous decline: "Well, we didn't plan ahead, we took our blessings for granted, the world changed around us, and the things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed."

Yet for all the eyebrows it raised, the left-field appointment as captain of Darren Sammy has prompted the needle on the optimistometer to flicker to life. It is all too easy to be seduced by the latest well-meaning call to arms by the latest new West Indies captain, wholly unprepared as he invariably is to withstand the full blast of the heat in that particular kitchen, but here, we can safely assume, is no Chris "I'm Not Bovvered" Gayle. Here, it seems, is someone not only aware of that heritage but unintimidated by it. As he put it with some eloquence the other day, "I am taking on a mountain that carries so much legacy, and I will also remind the guys of the great legacy that we carry." The immediate priority, nevertheless, is to "bring back the joy". There are worse places to start.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Deena on November 3, 2010, 13:50 GMT

    If you want to see pride pick this team:

    A tiger a tough pro and the exuberance of youth: Shiv and Nash to lead the 2010 under 19 side. When Gayle, Dwayne and Sarwan come knocking we will say prove it in our domestic cricket.

  • Derek on November 1, 2010, 11:33 GMT

    @Metman, it matters not what Gayle and Co. are chasing. The all concuring WI of the 70's thru 90's (Quality ones anyway) all featured in the English county game where they supplemented their earnings and still managed to put in good performances playing against some of the best.... Until it gets into the heads of WI men that it matters not how much you earn but how you invest I'm afraid WI cricket will keep going to the WELL and one day find that the bottom of the bucket is REALLY broken! Management need to get away from the view of we played for PRIDE...that era is finished..PROFESSIONALS, must prepare like pros, play like pros and be rewarded like pros and when they do not measure up be treated like pros as in given the PUSH. The region's best number 4 batsman is currently unfit to represent the WI; good this looks like a start of a professional setup take the captaincy away from the leading opener and if he can't focus on HIS GAME he should be shown the door..CONSISTENCY.

  • Derek on November 1, 2010, 11:10 GMT


  • Dummy4 on October 28, 2010, 21:05 GMT

    Its not just the West Indies players who've changed but also the fans. Back in the 70s and 80s they really added to the occasion with their vocal support, especially the Tests at the Oval and Edgbaston in 1976, 1980 and 1984 and at the World Cup finals at Lords in 75 and 79 and the tours by England and Australia to the Caribbean in 1980, 84 and 86. Now its completely changed, their supporters either stay away or are outnumbered by tourists. Maybe they've been priced out by ticket prices, non-availability of pay-on-the-gate tickets, stringent restrictions on bringing items like drums, dustbin lids etc into the grounds or maybe the current generation of West Indians don't have the same level of passion or even interest in the game. Whatever the reason, their absence is very sad. Something seems to have been lost from the game.

  • Dummy4 on October 28, 2010, 18:22 GMT

    What Would The Legends of WI Like Viv ,Clive,Gary Will Be feeling Today What Was There Team And What's The Team Today...................?????????

  • Kali Muthu on October 28, 2010, 17:27 GMT

    The Windies Cricket is gone for ever... sad but true, their cream of talent is nolonger interested in Cricket as there is very little money as compared to club level basket ball in the US or Athletics, the world of Cricket will never ever see the likes of 3 Ws, those marauding quickies, Viv , Kanhai, Headley, Greenidge, Haynes and the incomparable Gary.. sad indeed.

  • Gerald on October 28, 2010, 15:42 GMT

    It is very simple. Back in the day the British administered West Indies cricket. As their people, money and cultural influence was phased out so did the structures and mental application diminish. It is no accident that the last top quality players such as Lara and Chanderpaul were the last ones to come through that old system. And as some others have said, West Indies cricket won't ever recover.

  • George on October 28, 2010, 12:21 GMT

    One other thought: There was no shortage of pride, spirit & enthusiasm when they rolled England over for 51 at Sabina Park in 2009, nor at Trinidad at the end of the same series when they held on for a draw to win the series. The players clearly loved it & it makes me wonder why they can't/don't/won't strive to hit those heights regularly.

  • P Subramani on October 28, 2010, 11:39 GMT

    The West Indies always had great players in their team whether it was George Headley who actually hailed from Panama or Learie Constantine or Garfield Sobers or Seymour Nurse.Maybe because they came from disparate islands there was no national identity till Frank Worrell came along and led them in the famous Tie drawn series in Australia in 1961. Even after that epic series,they strayed away till Clive Lloyd brought about this battering ram concept from the World Cup of 1975 which they won.After that though they lost 1-5 to Australia in 75 after much was expected of them, the world got to see what Lloyd had in mind not too much later.No team, just none could be compared with this group of supreme athletes. Someone suggeted that Pakistan could be bracketed with them because of their present day woes.That in my opinion is sacrilege. Pakistan did have the Imrans and the Sarfarazs the Majids and the Miandads.Though they did well in a purple patch under Imran,it was it was not the same.

  • M on October 28, 2010, 9:54 GMT

    Mr.Steen, the reasons for WI downfall is Financial & Short-sightedness......... ............Financial because the W.Indian players of pre-1990 era came from financially weak background.......they were more conscious of the racial abuse/divide......hence they had a burning desire to succeed & show the racists who is superior.....& they found cricket as a stepping stone to rise............Todays generation is more successful & socially secured mostly migrating to the USA..................Short-sightedness by WI Cricket Board, which didn't capitalize on the immense popularity of cricket in WI......they didn't invest in building a system, in infrastructures like stadium, better training facilities....which Australia & India did.....as a result raw talents were attracted towards more lucrative baseball & in migrating to the USA.....

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