by Susan Patterson
“We play cricket for the value of cricket” – Bunny Wailer
Despite my ancestors being indigenously British as far back as the Romans, I failed the Tebbit cricket test a long time ago. My mantra was ‘anybody but England, unless it’s Australia’, but my true love in international cricket was the West Indies team. When I meet someone from Ballycastle who supports Leeds United, or from Porto who supports West Ham United, I have a theory that the club was in its glory years when that person was ten years old. Having seen Fire in Babylon I now know that in supporting the Windies, instead of being a romantic maverick I was a glory hunter, no better than a London Red. (I prefer to believe that I had a premonition of the Barmy Army, and knew that I would want nothing to do with it.) After telling a classmate, who called me an n-word-lover, for the first, but not last, time in my life. My affiliation became the love that dare not speak its name. This was also my first lesson that National Front supporters were not cuddly patriots.
In Fire in Babylon director Steven Riley tells the story of the West Indies cricket team, from their humiliating 5-1 Test defeat in Australia in 1975 to becoming the unstoppable Test-winning machine captained by Clive Lloyd, using archive footage, interviews, music, and cultural analysis by Bunny Wailer and Frank I. The film is overtly framed in the emergence of a post-colonial Caribbean culture; the politicisation of some of the team, particularly Viv Richards, as black people increasingly conscious of their African descent; and the fight against apartheid. Its saddest moments come with the fallout from the rebel tour of South Africa in 1983.
One doesn’t need to be CLR James to know that cricket matters in the English- speaking Caribbean. Fire in Babylon makes no bones about the power that beating England had for West Indians as sweet revenge for colonialism. Many of the team played county cricket in England and Wales; they knew the challenges of being black in Britain, the hostility between the police and young black men. Taking the game of the colonial masters and overpowering them with it is explicit in the film’s message. Before the start of the 1976 series, South African-born England captain Tony Greig said on television that he intended to make the West Indies grovel. After drawing the first two matches of the series the West Indies won the last three, culminating in a 231 run win at the Oval, the Windies’ de facto home ground in England. There are some low-level blocks of flats alongside the Oval, clearly visible in some of the footage in Fire in Babylon. I know for a fact that here it was possible to exchange a six-pack of Red Stripe for access through some of the upper windows onto the roof and watch the match for free while having a party.
Part of the West Indies’ renaissance is put down to the birth of World Series Cricket in 1977, and the high standards that series founder Kerry Packer demanded in return for the salaries he was paying. It wasn’t possible simply to coast through a series bankrolled by Packer. Players had to be fit; it was the beginning of the professionalisation of the game, and also of players’ rights. The Packer rebels were initially banned from Test cricket by the still white West Indian cricket board, but reinstated after pressure from West Indian supporters.
Some of the pleasure of this exuberant film, particularly for me, was watching Australia eating humble pie when the West Indies toured there in 1979. The home nation’s weapons included racism from both crowd and players, as well as Dennis Lillee’s bowling, but nevertheless the West Indies left with their first ever test victory over Australia.
Even if you’ve never seen a cricket match before it’s impossible not to be moved by this joyous film, inspired by these men and enthused by the veneration of cricket as a means of expounding wider truths. The archive footage is astounding. I defy you not to gasp and duck, to feel the pain of players hit while not wearing protection.
“Fire in Babylon” is released in cinemas tomorrow, 20 May, and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on 6 June.