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West side story

A new film explains how the West Indies team of the 1970s and 1980s proved that its players were so much more than ‘calypso cricketers’.

May 08 2011
Jamie Reid

Fire in Babylon, a new film about the great West Indian cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s, opens in British cinemas on May 20. Written and directed by Stevan Riley, it’s co-produced by Charles Steel, who worked on the Bafta award-winner The Last King of Scotland. Fire in Babylon previewed to great acclaim at the London Film Festival in October 2010 and should be required viewing not just for cricket fans but for documentary lovers everywhere.

It tells, to a stirring reggae soundtrack, the story of how cricket enabled Caribbean culture to assert itself with pride. The West Indies only really exists as an entity in the cricketing sphere: the players all come from different independent islands – Antigua, Barbados, Trinidad etc – and as the sublime Jamaican fast-bowler-turned-commentator Michael Holding observes, “Cricket is the one thing we do together.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, West Indian players were often patronisingly depicted as “calypso cricketers” who, though entertaining at times, lacked the character to be consistent winners. When the Windies came to England in the summer of 1976, the host captain (blond South African-born Tony Greig) said that he didn’t just want to beat the tourists, he wanted to “make them grovel”.

Fired up by Greig’s incendiary words – tactless at best in an era when white policemen were shooting black protesters in Soweto and racial tensions were running high in Britain – the islanders united to exact a famous revenge. They won the series 3-0 and, in the final test at the Oval, their incomparable batsman Viv Richards, who was knighted in 2001, scored 291 runs on his own account. As he observes in the film, “When I reached 200 – man, I was really grovelling.” What Richards began, Holding finished off. The man known as “Whispering Death” took 14 wickets and clean-bowled Greig (for 12 and 1 runs respectively) in each innings.

I was at the Oval that August and I’ll never forget the atmosphere. West Indian spectators poured into the ground each day, many blowing whistles and trumpets and ringing bells to herald England’s impending doom. Fortunately, the elderly members in the Oval pavilion – trussed up in jackets and ties, even in that sweltering summer – were unable to identify the aroma of the prohibited substances being smoked around the boundary.

That West Indian team became perhaps the finest in cricketing history. Between 1980 and 1995, they played 29 test series and didn’t lose one of them. Richards was an intimidating skipper and they often fielded not just two or three but four fearsomely fast bowlers, including Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel “Big Bird” Garner, who was 6ft 8in tall. Opposition batsmen cowered before their pace and hostility and more than 50 of them ended up in hospital with fractures of various kinds.

Caribbean cricket has sadly declined in the past decade, as Australia and then India have taken over as the world number one. But many of the legends, including Sir Viv Richards, will be in London for a party to celebrate the premiere of Fire in Babylon. Shortly afterwards (on May 26), England begin their first domestic test of the year against Sri Lanka, who will be tricky opponents. But if Andrew Strauss’s men can recapture the form and team spirit they displayed down under, they should win the series by a 2-nil margin at 9-4 with Fitzdares.