Pace, race, and resistance

Ben Lewis reviews director Stevan Riley's 'Fire in Babylon' (2011, DVD,

Those who labour under the illusion that cricket is the dull and dreary preserve of the British establishment, that the gentle thwack of willow on leather should hold no interest for the workers’ movement and should be confined to the fields of Britain’s public schools, would do well to watch at least the opening scenes of Fire in Babylon.

Intimidatingly built young men from different Caribbean islands replicate the run-up of a fast bowler, with the film then cutting back to archive footage of some of the greats of the late 1970s and 80s, the belle époque of West Indian cricket. This footage depicts the fastest ‘bouncers’ - short-pitched, fast-paced deliveries, which rise up at the batsman’s ribs/throat/face - in a frenzy of broken jaws, cracked ribs, bruised torsos and dislodged helmets. The game can be brutal and captivating in equal measure - a world away from the soporific shelter of the exclusive MCC box at Lord’s. As any trip to the slums of Mumbai or the shanty towns of Bangladesh will show, cricket is a sport that can capture the hearts and minds of millions.

Fire in Babylon is the story of how, under the shrewd captaincy of Clive Lloyd, a great West Indian cricket team stood up against the best in the world to do precisely this: to captivate and inspire millions across the globe, from Guyana to Melbourne to Dacca.

The team’s legacy lies not merely in the fact that it rose to become the best in the world within a matter of years, nor that its development of breakneck speed bowling revolutionised the game. The team also became a symbol of black self-assertion, confidence and identity for those who had been stripped of this identity by colonialism. The team sought to create a ‘level playing field’ in a world still marred by the basest racial prejudices and inequality. And then it proceeded to bombard that playing field with lightening-bolt deliveries which few could cope with.

In the words of Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley and the Wailers fame), cricket in the West Indies belongs to “daily life” and is deeply rooted in the “spirit” of the islands. The film portrays the roots of the game by capturing local musicians - young and old - rapping, singing and telling stories about the great cricketing names which every young person growing up on the islands would have known: Garfield Sobers, Frank Worrell and so on. Cricket and social life are inseparable.

It is no accident, then, that one of the greatest works on cricket was written by the Trinidadian Marxist, CLR James (Beyond a boundary). As James harrowingly depicts, the game blossomed within the struggle against colonial oppression. He writes of black slaves working on plantations who, in a desperate attempt to escape their bondage through cricket, would wait for the ball to be hit out of the cricket ground and throw it back as hard as possible, hoping to be accepted into the team of their rulers. To the colonial masters living out their lives in the sun, cricket was seen as a way of imparting ‘British values’ and ‘decency’. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that the West Indies team had a black captain, thanks in part to the outraged CLR James.

For Clive Lloyd’s team, young and keen to prove itself on the world stage, cricket became a way of turning these attitudes on their head, standing up in solidarity and resistance against continued racial oppression and injustice.

In order to do this, the team had to stick together in the fight against ‘Babylon’, an enemy which took on multifarious forms and guises both at home and abroad. ‘Babylon’, as Bunny Wailer explains, is not a “place”, but a “process”, and it includes the West Indies Cricket Board that paid them a pittance and then banned them for playing in the well-paid World Series Cricket; the racial oppression of a South African government that tried to lure them into touring as ‘honorary whites’(!); the British gutter press which decried the West Indian ‘terrorists’ and spoke of ‘bouncers and bongos’. Although relatively short, this film portrays a long and arduous struggle; from the lows of humiliation at the hands of Australian fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1975, to the highs of subsequent international success.

It was this drubbing in Australia in 1975 which sparked a rethink of the West Indian approach formerly dubbed ‘calypso cricket’. While ‘calypso’ has connotations of fun, entertainment and beauty, the term epitomised a colonial attitude towards the benighted team. It portrayed them as cricketing also-rans who were keen to please the crowd, knew their place and lost with a smile on their faces.

Seeing the devastation caused by the ability of Lillee and Thomson to bowl at over 90 miles per hour, Clive Lloyd travelled around the West Indies searching for bowlers who could do the same. Michael Holding, whose dulcet tones will be familiar to any cricket fan from his television commentary, was one of the four 90mph bowlers dubbed ‘the four horses of the apocalypse’ who terrified batsmen into submission with deliveries that whizzed past their ears. When in 1979 the West Indies went to Australia, the number one side in the world, they returned what ‘Lillee and Thommo’ had dished out ... with interest. Here were the beginnings of a new era, in which West Indian cricket became a beacon of hope against racism throughout the world - whether in the stands of an aggressive Melbourne crowd (“Lillee, Lillee, Lillee - kill, kill, kill!”) or on tour in England, where many West Indians had settled to work and would flock to the grounds to watch their heroes. Cricket was equality, competition was respect. Winning was dignity.

Not that this unprecedented success was unreservedly welcomed by the British cricketing establishment. On the contrary, there were jealous and defensive calls to ban bouncers, to make the pitches slower or to limit bowlers’ run-ups. The objectors had short memories: it was the English team that invented ‘bodyline’ - fast deliveries aimed not at the wicket, but at the batsman’s torso - during the 1932-33 tour of Australia. This intimidatory tactic saw England coast to a clear victory against the pre-series favourites.

Against the backdrop of the West Indies tours to England, the film nicely pieces together clips of several people decrying the number of “immigrants” in the country and moaning about how there were not enough houses to go around. Not much change there. But the cricketing team became a rallying point for Caribbean migrants, who flocked to the games to celebrate their team’s success - in particular what will forever be remembered as the ‘blackwash’: the 1984 5-0 hammering of the English on their own soil.

The interviews with some of the cricketing greats are occasionally heart-rending, at times heart-warming and often simply hilarious. For example, Joel Garner - the sight of his 6’8” frame alone would turn most batsmen’s legs to jelly - recalls how he once asked his fellow bowler, Colin Croft, what he would do if he had to bowl against his own mother. “Then my mother is the target,” quipped Croft.

The character that dominates the film is Vivian Richards, the ‘master blaster’. As a remarkably aggressive batsman and Clive Lloyd’s successor as captain, Richards was one of the figures most influenced by the philosophy of black power. When, unlike Croft and others, he refused to tour South Africa and thus turned down a ‘blank cheque’, his stance inspired many across the world. He recalls how the then incarcerated Nelson Mandela conveyed his personal thanks via bishop Desmond Tutu, and how he became a hero back home, whereas many who went on the rebel tour were cast out from Caribbean society.

Protected only by his cap and his wristband with the African colours of green, yellow and red (he never wore a helmet), Richards would swagger out to the middle as though he was strolling into his kitchen to put the kettle on, not facing bowling that could knock his head off. “But inside,” he says, “inside you were focussed.” He felt the pain of oppressed black people worldwide, and had a point to prove.

Viv has always been a bit of a hero for me, and this sentiment was only reinforced by this film. While the film did not explore just what Viv now thought of those like Mandela, today’s poster boys of imperialism (“the struggle goes on”, he declares), it would be misplaced to criticise the film on this score. It is a film about how remarkable sporting performances can challenge seemingly immutable views and beliefs.

A childhood memory I will never lose is of a close member of my family, one who may even have made the odd racist remark, running into the room elated, a copy of The Sun in his hand: “Viv Richards is coming to Glamorgan! Viv fucking Richards is going to play for Glamorgan!” If that is not an indication of the universality of sport, of the fact that the achievements of such a figure can inspire so many, then I do not know what is. Viv’s decimation of opposing county bowlers did much to challenge certain forms of racial narrow-mindedness in south Wales.

Cricket enthusiasts and sports fans will probably get the most out of this film - especially those a little older than me who remember those summer days spent watching these inspiring men. Yet the pervading spirit of freedom, equality and dignity which leaps out from every frame extends well beyond the boundaries of the cricket pitch. Stevan Riley’s film allows even a newcomer to cricket to understand both the game and the politics. As such, even those who cannot tell their googlies from their flippers or their leg slips from their deep gullies will draw inspiration from a film destined to be enjoyed by people far beyond cricketing circles.

Solidarity cricket

The third annual solidarity cricket match between Hands Off the People of Iran and the Labour Representation Committee will take place on Sunday September 11 in East London. Money raised will go to Workers’ Fund Iran.

For more information, email info@hopoi.org