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Fire In Babylon

Fire In Babylon

By Ben Nicholson • April 2nd, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Revolver Entertainment

Original release: May 20th, 2011
Certificate (UK): 12
Running time: 87 minutes

Writer and director: Stevan Riley

Cast: Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Colin Croft

Until I was about 18 years old, I played a lot of cricket. Whilst playing for the juniors I kept the scores for the senior side of my local club and operated the scoreboard. In my spare time as a kid, I watched the test matches on TV and kept the scores for them in my own book.

On weekends, I spend nearly every waking hour playing cricket, whether it was practising my bowling in front of the mirror to get my technique right, playing in matches on a Sunday morning, or running around the field catching and fielding until it was too dark to see the ball. So you may think that I am inclined to like a cricket documentary, but like last year’s other really good sports documentary, Senna, you don’t need to like or understand cricket to love Stevan Riley’s Fire In Babylon.

Fire In Babylon

In 1975-6, the West Indies cricket team toured Australia and were embarrassingly routed 5-1. Despite having some terrific players in their history, like Rohan Kanhai and Sir Garfield Sobers, they had never been a team who were taken seriously and that had not changed when they were humiliated by Tommo and Lillee in Oz. They were referred to as “Calypso Cricketers” a patronising term suggesting that they were just a bit of fun.

After suffering the bitter defeat at the hands of world cricket’s most attacking pace bowlers, recently appointed West Indian captain, Clive Lloyd, decided that the only way for the team to really compete would be for them to attack back. He toured the islands looking for really fast bowlers to complement their current spearheads, Roberts and Holding, and within about four years had created one of the greatest and most feared bowling attacks in test cricket history: Andy Roberts, “Whispering Death” Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner.

Complementing this line-up with a batting order including the legendary Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Alvin Kallicharran and Lloyd himself, the West Indies not only became a side to be taken seriously but grew into the best side in the world dominating test cricket until the 1990’s.

Fire In Babylon

The great thing about Fire In Babylon is that it’s a true underdog story; it is the tale of a sports team who were basically a laughing-stock and were considered inferior to the rest of the cricketing world but with perseverance and fearlessness and the willingness to take the gentleman’s game to their opponents, they became a force to be reckoned with – you truly couldn’t write it.

The film is made up of a variety of talking heads, the majority are members of the West Indies squad from the period (Lloyd, Richards, Roberts, Holding, Croft) and then there are social commentators and Bunny Wailer to add to the mix. The interview style varies, generally being relatively light-hearted but then there’s also a very serious side to what was happening in the world and with West Indian cricket at this time.

Fire In Babylon

It begins with a clip of cricket commentator Geoffrey Boycott’s disgust at the West Indies tactic of bowling fast bouncers to intimidate their opponents: “That’s not right, I really do not care if you are a West Indian or Englishman; that cannot be right in cricket.” Viv Richards’ response really shows what cricket meant for those people and the people of the Caribbean at that time: “Aggression means aggression, that’s how I look at life, in a fight I am going to fight. We had a mission; a mission that we believe in ourselves and we believe that we are just as good as anyone… equal for that matter.”

The underdog nature of the West Indian team was not just that they were deemed ‘Calypso Cricketers’ but also the feeling that they were descended from slaves and had been taught cricket by their colonial masters, the English. In an era following the Civil Rights movement, the rise of the “Windies” took on a much grander cultural importance and the thrashing of an England side whose captain, Tony Greig, had said before the series started:

“These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel.”

Fire In Babylon

This spurred the team on and it was Greig and England who were left grovelling after the 3-0 thrashing. It’s also important to realise that cricket was the only thing that brought together the very different people of the very distinctive Caribbean islands so it really meant a lot to the people of the West Indies when the team was doing so well.

This a very well put together documentary, with engaging and interesting talking heads and even those who are not cricket fans or even those who despair of it (as many of the uninitiated do in my experience) it would be hard not be taken with Holding, Richards and co. When Richards recounts being given a message from Nelson Mandela (via Desmond Tutu) it is clear that they were much more than just one of the greatest cricket teams of all time – and this comes across brilliantly in the film.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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