The story of a dynasty

An acclaimed new documentary on the West Indies teams of the 70s and 80s goes beyond charting their on-field dominance

Liam Brickhill
Liam Brickhill
The cover image of <i>Fire In Babylon</i>

Revolver Entertainment

The best documentaries break out of the boundaries of their subject matter to paint a picture that is altogether larger and more complex, becoming something more than the sum of their parts. Films that manage this feat enthrall even those without much knowledge of their subjects. Fire In Babylon, which charts the rise of the great West Indian side of the 1970s and 80s, is just such a film.
With a heady combination of testimonies from several West Indian players whose names - Michael Holding, Viv Richards, Colin Croft, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Clive Lloyd - would honour a cricketing Hall of Fame, a clear-eyed view of the turbulent politics and race relations of the time, and a killer dub and reggae soundtrack (not to mention a scene-stealing cameo from Bunny Wailer) that perfectly complements some stunning archive footage, Fire In Babylon has reached an ever-widening audience since its initial showing at the London Film Festival in October last year. Its popularity has led to a re-release in cinemas across the United Kingdom on May 20.
"I think it's just a great story that needed to be told," Michael Holding, a vital part of that West Indian side's success and one of the most fearsome fast bowlers to have played the game, told ESPNcricinfo. "It has great historical background, it has political background, it has so many different things, and perhaps that is the reason why so many people have been attracted to it.
"To be a part of that West Indies team, and to be a part of so much success, was great. I look back on that and think I was so fortunate to be involved in West Indies cricket at that time, because I think it was just a perfect storm that came together."
The film details the ingredients that went into creating one of the most dominant cricket teams of all time, and one that went unbeaten in a Test series for 15 years. The success was built on a battery of athletic fast bowlers, attacking batsmen, an inspirational leader, and most importantly, an idea that they were not simply smiling "calypso cricketers" but could, as Bunny Wailer puts it, become "like slaves whipping the asses of masters". Beyond the cricket, a strong cultural identity was being formed. This is the touchstone that is returned to time and again, as a group of proud black men show the world they can play the game as well as anyone ever has, if not better. Indeed, Richards is Rastafarian in everything but hairstyle, we are told.
All of which leaves a lasting impression of the wider significance of events taking place on the field, expanding the film's appeal considerably. But in attempting to reach out to a non-cricketing audience, there are times when it feels as though the core demographic of cricket fans, for whom Richards' batting average is more important than his beliefs, are somewhat short-changed. Scores and statistics are largely lacking from the screen and certain important events, such as the 1979 World Cup triumph, are glossed over.
That message, though, is undoubtedly a worthy one, and is bolstered by the fact that the story is presented through the eyes of the players involved, rather than using a procession of talking heads and experts, and each interview presents the narrative from a slightly different angle. Holding's treacle-toned contributions are among the highlights, and he proffers several of the eloquently persuasive pronouncements that have become such a feature of his commentary in recent years. Yet he readily admits he didn't think so deeply into matters at the time, so focused was he on the task at hand: cricket.
While the story of West Indies' golden years makes for stirring viewing, a cinematic version of the current situation would at times be more akin to an awkward combination of horror and comedy
"When I was actually playing cricket I wasn't thinking about any political ramifications of what I was doing. I was out there trying to play a cricket match, trying to take wickets, trying to win Test matches for my country.
"We eventually got to realise that [we stood for something bigger than the cricket] the more we played and went overseas. The more you play overseas, and the more you interact with the Caribbean people overseas, you realise the implications of what you are doing. And when you do well, they feel so proud. They can walk the streets of whatever country they are in, proud to be confidently West Indian, because they are associated with success."
While the story of West Indies' golden years makes for stirring viewing, a cinematic version of the current situation would at times be more akin to an awkward combination of horror and comedy. Most troublingly, in a region where parochialism rules and "the West Indies" only really exists in cricket terms, there is no longer any great unifier - something that all great teams require.
"I think the problem now is that West Indian cricketers see cricket as a way of making a living, nothing else," said Holding. "They don't understand exactly what cricket means to Caribbean people and how it affected peoples' lives.
"Money is not just what people play for, it is also what all the cricket boards also aspire towards. Even the ICC, all they think about is money. The problem is definitely deeper than just the cricketers themselves. I don't blame the cricketers so much. People can't just blame children; you have to look at the parents as well. If the parents are doing the right thing, the children will follow."
The film's producers are keen to reach out to a younger audience, and schoolchildren will be invited to free screenings of Fire In Babylon in different locations during Pakistan's current tour, an idea enthusiastically backed by Holding.
"I wouldn't be bothering with the older folk. Young trees bend a lot easier than old trees. So I'd be interested in getting this documentary into the schools and into the young people of the Caribbean, so they can then focus their minds on that and be associated with that from an early age. These cricketers now are not going to change. You're not going to get them all of a sudden to stop thinking money and start thinking West Indies, and thinking pride and region. That isn't going to happen."
It remains to be seen whether the story of the golden age of West Indian cricket will inspire the young cricketers of the Caribbean, and ultimately it might be argued that what the youth really need is a new brand of hero from the current crop of national cricketers. Darren Sammy and his men, dismissed as a poor imitation of their forefathers, nevertheless showed in the win over Pakistan in Guyana that grit, perseverance and military-medium pace can also produce results. It wasn't quite one of the demolitions of old, but with another "perfect storm" of cricketing talent unlikely, it's a start.
Fire in Babylon
directed by Stevan Riley
87 min; 2011

Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo