The West Indies were the undisputed champions of test cricket for 15 remarkable years from 1980. They took the game to new levels of skill and athleticism.
The documentary Fire in Babylon relates—with appropriate flair and pace—how this was a political and not just a sporting achievement.
Cricket was originally exported to the British colonies to “civilise the natives”. It was only in 1960 that Frank Worrell became the West Indies’ first black captain—and this was in the teeth of fierce resistance from the white elite.
But the West Indian team remained famed for enjoyable but inconsistent play, patronisingly dubbed “Calypso Cricket”.
When the West Indies lost 5-1 in Australia in 1975, blown away by lightning fast bowling, captain Clive Lloyd devised a plan to fight fire with fire.
Infamously, the next year English captain Tony Greig—actually a white South African—promised to make the West Indies “grovel”. Instead the English team felt the heat of the West Indies’ new attack, losing the series 3-0.
Instantly carping began about “short-pitched bowling” (aimed at the body rather than the stumps) .
This was pretty hypocritical considering England’s role in pioneering the technique in the infamous “Bodyline” tour of Australia in 1932-3.
And in 1975 Australian fans had combined racist abuse of the West Indians with calling on Australian bowlers to “kill, kill!”
The civil rights and black power movements inspired the cricketing renaissance that followed. In turn this success promoted black pride and anti-racism—in Britain as well as the Caribbean.
It enabled the team to fight against their domestic cricket establishment to win fairer treatment.
It also led to offers of astronomical sums for West Indians to break the international boycott of racist South Africa. Most, to their credit, declined. Those who did go faced enduring ostracism as “mercenaries”.
Fire in Babylon is promoted as “one of the greatest sports movies of all time”. Admittedly there’s not a lot of competition.
But thanks to an accessible and politically engaged narrative, its appeal should go far beyond cricket anoraks.
Fire in Babylon
Written and directed by Stevan Riley
Out now on DVD