Simon Briggs of London’s Telegraph looks at Fire in Babylon, the documentary that seeks to answer the question of “what makes a great sports team?” by looking at the Windies, the West Indies cricket team that reinvented the game, one that parents tell their children about and writers celebrate for generations to come.
Is the answer talent? Up to a point. But, as a gripping new documentary about the great West Indies cricket team makes clear, that is only the beginning. Fire in Babylon reveals how the most powerful force in team sport is not physical ability, but a burning, almost religious faith in a common cause.
The movie – which premiered at the London Film Festival this month – tells the story of West Indies cricket under the captaincy of Clive Lloyd. It begins with their ill-fated tour of Australia in 1975-76 – a series in which they took a physical battering from the great pace duo Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, and a verbal hounding from a few racist brutes in the stands.
One early scene has Michael Holding describing the moment when he sat down on the field and wept in despair and disbelief that “anyone could play the game of cricket this hard”. Yet from this humiliation rose a cold, hard fury, as the West Indies teams rallied together under the banner of black power.
As Holding explains, he and his team-mates had become sick of the stereotype of “calypso cricketers” — a patronising, gently racist shorthand that conveyed a team of entertainers playing with submissive smiles on their faces.
So, first under the captaincy of Lloyd, and then the Marley-esque figurehead Vivian Richards, the West Indies bade farewell to the soft touches of old. Emulating the head-hunting style of Lillee and Thomson, they reinvented themselves as a ruthless winning machine.
For Richards, cricket was a way of striking back at the old colonial overlords. “My bat was my sword,” as he put it. And for any number of legendary West Indian fast bowlers – a proud lineage that ran from Andy Roberts to Curtly Ambrose – the ball was a bullet. If the odd bruise was inflicted, the odd bone broken, that was as nothing compared to the suffering of the African people under the yoke of slavery.
The film’s director, Stevan Riley, has found a wealth of contemporary footage and stitched it together with real flair. Fire In Babylon is a riot of sound and fury, a cavalcade of flying stumps and dented helmets, all set to a pulsing reggae soundtrack by Gregory Isaacs and Burning Spear. It ends with an extraordinary list: the 29 Test series that the West Indies played between March 1980 and May 1995, without losing a single one.
Riley’s achievement is to explain the trajectory of West Indian cricket in political terms. The players drew strength from independence and the wave of idealistic optimism that followed. By the late 1970s, the exploits of the cricket team and the music of Bob Marley had fostered a feeling that the Caribbean had finally arrived on the world stage.
It follows, then, that the decline of West Indies cricket has political roots too. Results have been ebbing away ever since the retirement of Desmond Haynes, the last of Lloyd’s warriors, in 1994.
And it is worth noting that the mood of the whole region became bleaker and more fragmented around that time. Reforms backed by the International Monetary Fund cut wages and reduced life expectancies. The crusading zeal of the Caribbean ebbed away, as its people realised that they remained at the mercy of white men in faraway countries.
While the West Indies are perhaps the best example of a team using nationalism as a driving force, they are far from being the only one.
Take the All Blacks, who see themselves as New Zealand’s chief export besides lamb chops. Or Steve Waugh’s Aussies and their unprintable team song: “Australia, you ——- beauty”.
But your country — or town, or region or city – does not have to be at the root of your philosophy. Under Clive Woodward, the England rugby squad put their faith in microscopic attention to detail, and the idea that they would be better prepared than any opponent.
Whether pulling on freshly laundered shirts at half-time made a difference is a moot point; what is undeniable is that the players believed in the principle of perfectionism, just as the West Indies believed in their shared fight against oppression. In team sport, as in the church, nothing great can be achieved without conviction.