Don’t diss fire starters: Some reasons not to like Fire in Babylon

Fazeer Mohammed did not like Fire in Babylon and here he tells us why.

If you’re going to watch Fire in Babylon, wear some flame retardant material, or at the very least, keep a bucket of water handy.

Such is the intensity of the heat generated by the topic being lionised (I wouldn’t say analysed because this film is basically unrepentant bigging up) that almost everything else preceding the 15-year era of unprecedented dominance by the cricketers of the West Indies is charred beyond recognition by the flames of trivialisation and ridicule.

English director Stevan Riley’s 87-minute documentary feature on the genesis of that glorious period of Caribbean conquest from 1980 to 1995 moved some in the audience at Movie Towne last Wednesday evening to spontaneous applause. Clearly, the fast-paced flow of archival footage, still images and vibrant narratives from some of the living legends of that era had made an impact on those either enduring a prolonged, painful tabanca or were getting an appreciation of that period in our cricketing history for the first time.

Look, the dry facts of that era are so compelling in their own right that the story stands tall and proud on its own. So why was it necessary for some of the interviewees to seek to diminish the achievements of those who had come before them? This, more than anything else, represents the glaring failure of this production.

In what can only be described as an obsession with spinning the whole experience as a black power African consciousness thing, Fire in Babylon manages to both excite the West Indian fan and reinforce the negative stereotypes. It emphasises brawn over brain in celebrating the regularity in which batsmen were felled by Caribbean pacemen (with appropriate amplification of sound at the point of impact like a cheap Indian movie), while saying almost nothing about the skill and cunning of these same fast bowlers in adapting effectively to varying conditions.

Our batsmen are portrayed—with reinforcement from their own lips, it must be pointed out—as in-your-face gladiators wielding their meaty willows like scything blades, completely ignoring the mesmerising harmony of intuitive brilliance, technical versatility and artistic finesse that could result in Viv Richards plundering runs off Lillee and Thomson in Australia, Bedi, Venkat and Chandrasekhar in the West Indies and Hendrick, Old and Underwood in England, all within the space of eight months in 1976.

At the London premiere of Fire in Babylon, Joel Garner made light of the suggestion that players then saw cricket as a vehicle to promote their unique identity, stating that he could recall no-one making any political statement publicly. He was wrong, of course, as one or two made it clear at the time why they could not join the rebel tours of South Africa in 1982/83. But the point is that his view was at complete variance with the theme of the film, and that, to “Big Bird” at least, playing to win was about personal and professional pride, full stop, and not about making any statement in support of Nelson Mandela or anyone else for that matter.

If that could be excused as a matter of interpretation, there can be no forgiving the diminution of the achievements of the West Indies teams of the 1950s and 1960s as typical “Calypso cricket”. It is beyond belief that players who grew up when the region ruled the world with the likes of Sobers, Hunte, Kanhai, Hall and Griffith at the forefront, and were following in the footsteps of the legendary Weekes, Worrell and Walcott, and Ram and Val in mastering the English at their own game in their own conditions, would dismiss them collectively as “not winners”.

Worse still is the casual disregard for the impact of the Frank Worrell-led squad in reviving interest in Test cricket during the 1960/61 series in Australia. A rubber that started with a tie and ended in a nail-biting series-clinching victory by the hosts so captivated Australians that hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Melbourne to give the Caribbean men a heartfelt send-off. This, mind you, at a time when the “White Australia” policy, in which the native peoples of that land weren’t even counted in the official population statistics, still prevailed. It prompted Wes Hall to point out that he was welcomed into the country as a cricketer, but his brother—a much better man than him, by his own estimation—would have been rejected as just another unwanted black man.

Yet according to the one-eyed account in the film, none of that mattered. Why? Because the series was lost.

It would have been infinitely better for Fire in Babylon to focus exclusively on the period being celebrated. But by denigrating their predecessors in the promotion of a black power agenda, all associated with the production have cheapened the intended message, even if it connects with the fly-by-nighters who have no real appreciation of the full context of cricket and its impact on the societies of the former British West Indies.

Maybe some of the former players interviewed didn’t intend for their observations to be so portrayed. Maybe, but I haven’t read or heard of a single one saying his comments were taken out of context or that he was not entirely comfortable with the end product. So in the absence of dissent, it can only be assumed that they all endorse the final message wholeheartedly.

Which leaves me to wonder if, as bright as the flame of West Indies cricket burned under their stewardship, they can appreciate that they didn’t start the fire.

For the original review go to

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