A story of Caribbean empowerment
A gust of fine rain swept across The Oval, forcing the Northants batters and Surrey fielders to make a dash for the pavilion. It was the penultimate day of the English domestic season, the fag end of summer, when the cricket lover is already slipping hopelessly into nostalgia. Even the muted TV screen hanging from the roof was lamenting for seasons past, running one of those "Heroes of Yesteryear" type documentaries on Richard Hadlee. A few us watched, the sunny shots of his cantering approach to the crease, shirt sleeves rolled up, and the smooth action delivering the inevitable off-stump line and perfect length delivery.
And when that highlights reel came to an end, I looked back across the damp outfield to the patch of sunlight beyond the rooftops of South London, and thought about the foreword to Simon Lister's superb new book, Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies cricket team brought a people to its feet. On the very first page Clive Lloyd recalls leaning on his bat at the non-striker's end at The Oval "and inhaling the exuberant buzz that only a West Indian cricket crowd far from home can create".
Inspired by the film of the same title, Lister has expanded the narrative of West Indies cricket by using the footage not broadcast by director Stevan Riley and interviewing the fans, players and their families, to document a history that lays claim to be the "definitive story of the greatest team sport has ever known".
I might have been too young to appreciate the rambunctious West Indies supporters of the 1970s and '80s, but through Lister's interviews with those fans who turned the prosaic seats of The Oval into a Caribbean carnival, and his portraits of the early pioneers of West Indies cricket - Charles Ollivierre, George Headley, Learie Constantine, Frank Worrell and Garfield Sobers - readers can understand what Lloyd meant when he looked to the packed stands and questioned: "How could we not try and do our best?"
Lister follows the West Indian exodus to Britain in the 1950s, highlighting the lack of a warm welcome for most of the new arrivals from the Caribbean. Many landed on damp shores to find their dreams of a better life living in cramped and cold rooms. A nonplussed public generally treated them with a contempt ranging from bemusement to verbal and physical abuse. Writing in his 1954 book Colour Bar, Constantine lamented that it was "hard to make it understood by white people how much we resent - and fear - this perpetual undercurrent of jeering, this ingrained belief in the white mind that the coloured man, woman or child is a matter for mirth".
From the 1950s onwards the number of Caribbean fans at West Indies games increased. Matches became a focal point for a community to identify with its roots. In the crowd, amid the music, food and language of a colony long abused by the Empire, was solidarity. On the first day of the Trent Bridge Test in 1976, Lister notes that the Times ran a letter in which the correspondent insisted the British government "repatriate as many unmarried or unsupported West Indian mothers with children as soon as possible".
No surprise that Tony Greig's famous plan to make West Indies "grovel" backfired so spectacularly. Gordon Greenidge saw it as a "deliberate attempt to degrade us". Paceman Andy Roberts knew what he was playing for, that West Indians in England "struggled more than those anywhere else in the world". Fans told Roberts, "You don't know how we feel when we lose and have to go back to the assembly lines and the factories. When we win, we can go back and hold our heads high."
Like any epic story, there is both triumph and tragedy. The defections to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket and the rebel tours to South Africa would finish the careers of budding players. It's especially poignant when Lister fast-forwards from the '80s, reflecting on the fall from grace of the men branded traitors for taking apartheid "blood money" to play in a regime that didn't accept that black people were equal to whites. David Murray, Richard Austin and Herbert Chang returned to the West Indies as outcasts, descending into drug addiction and destitution. Viv Richards describes his decision not to go to South Africa as his "greatest innings".
By entwining a social history of the West Indies, especially the post-war exodus to Britain, with the cricketing journey of the Caribbean, Lister has produced an authoritative and at times thrilling text. A winning team empowered a struggling people, and this is no better elucidated than in Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite's lines from "Rites" on a Clyde Walcott innings in Bridgetown:
'You see dat shot?' the people was shoutin';
'Jesus Chrise, man, wunna see dat shot?'
All over de groun' fellers shakin' hands wid each other
As if was they wheelin' de willow
As if was them had the power.
Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies cricket team brought a people to its feet
by Simon Lister
352 pages (hardback)