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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fire in Babylon

Snow is falling and laying outside as I write, the first time such a thing has been seen around here since 1976. It's been as cold as the County Ground in Bristol in May. What better way to escape the chill than by going to see Fire in Babylon, the documentary film about the rise of West Indies team that dominated world cricket from that year until the early nineties? I saw it in a full theatre at Te Papa, our wonderful national museum here in Wellington.

1976 was identified as the year that the West Indians stopped being calypso cricketers and turned into a hardnosed team founded on ruthless pace bowling. As the year began the team was in the middle of a drubbing, going down 5–1 to Australia. The players were confronted with the pace of Lillee and Thomson and shameful racism, from both from the Aussie players and the crowds.

The way the film told it, this humiliation made West Indies captain Clive Lloyd go out and find some fast bowlers, which enabled him to lead his side to victory against India at home, and England away, later that year. Well, not really. The only addition for the England tour, compared to the attack that had gone to Australia, was Wayne Daniel, who was certainly quick, but very much the tyro, threatening to life, limb and wicket only in short spells. The fourth member of the attack on the England tour was the workmanlike Vanburn Holder of Worcestershire, who had been playing international cricket for seven years by that time.

So the idea that Lloyd simply applied water to a pack of instant fast-bowler mix is wrong. West Indies won that series 3-0 because Andy Roberts (a wonderfully lugubrious witness throughout the film) and Michael Holding were very quick learners, and because Richards batted as well as anybody – Bradman included – has ever done that long hot summer, with 829 runs in just four Tests. And, they were playing England, not Australia. The England selectors took a preference for experience a little far that summer. Their chosen top four for the first Test was Brearley, Edrich, Steele and Close whose combined average age was just under 38 (if only their combined batting average had been as high).

Close and Edrich both finished their Test careers – or rather had them finished for them – at the third Test at Old Trafford where they received a fearful battering on the third evening at the hands of Holding, Roberts and Daniel, one which had the movie audience wincing in sympathy with each blow replayed on the screen (remember that in 1976 cricket was still helmet-free). Much pompous nonsense was written about that passage of play in the days, months and even years that followed. It came to be exhibit A in the case against an approach that was said to be, well, not quite cricket. Fire in Babylon featured an extract from a contemporary interview with Robin Marler, former Sussex captain and then cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times as an example of this attitude. To adapt a Penelope Gilliatt's famous remark about that organ's theatre critic Harold Hobson, the characteristic sound of an English Sunday morning in the seventies was Robin Marler barking up the wrong tree.

One person who did not complain was Brian Close himself. The film missed a trick by failing to point out that Close had been Viv Richards' county captain at Somerset, and that Richards credits Close with being a great influence in the development of his uncompromising approach to the game.

Incidentally, the photo of Close covered in bruises that followed the Old Trafford sequence – and which had the audience gasping at the screening I saw – was not taken then, but thirteen years earlier, after Close had put himself in the way of another West Indian pace onslaught, from Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at Lord's in 1963.

And then there was Greig's gaffe. Before the start of the 1976 series England captain Tony Greig, then as now not a man given to understatement, announced that it was his intention to make the West Indians grovel. Such a statement delivered in, say, the Yorkshire tones of Ray Illingworth or the Scottish lilt of Mike Denness would have been provocative enough. But Greig spoke with the voice of a white South African at the time of apartheid, and might as well have been sitting under a neon sign saying “oppressor”. Like the rest of the audience I winced as Grieg spoke, just as I did when I first heard him utter those ill-considered words on Sportsnight all those years ago.

For the purposes of the film Greig became symbolic of the political sub-text of the rise of the West Indies, one that was partly historical: the descendents of slaves striving to overcome their recent colonisers; and partly comtemporary: black men playing against the representatives of countries in which black people experienced racism as a part of their daily lives. This came across strongly in the testimony of Gordon Greenidge, who moved from Barbados to Reading as a 14-year-old in the mid-sixties. Greenidge deserves to rank among the batting greats, but has been neglected, probably because he stood in the shadow of the Richards, Barry at Hampshire and Viv for the West Indies.

Of course, a fast bowler with a ball in his hand does not require political motivation; the scent of blood and wickets is enough. But there is no doubt that many of the West Indian players of that era had an awareness of a political dimension to their cricket that was almost entirely absent among white players. That was why the recruiters of players for sanctions-breaking tours of South Africa found it so much harder to tempt West Indians with their large cheques than they did the English. Only Colin Croft of the first-line players signed, and he admitted that he had to quit the Caribbean for Florida to escape the resulting opprobium. Others ended up on Skid Row.

It was not that the likes of Gooch, Gatting and the rest of those who at some time pocketed the tainted rand held consciously racist attitudes; English cricket in the seventies (except in the Ridings) was well ahead of most other facets of British life in its embracing of multiculturalism. It was that they were naïve, so failed to join the dots.

Two things in defence of Tony Greig. First, he dealt with the pace of both the Australians and the West Indians better than any other English batsman. He played the innings of the series at the Gabba in 1974 and at Headingley in 1976. (Who was the only other player to score centuries in both series? Alan Knott, of course).

Second, I was at the Oval on the fourth day of the final Test in 1976 and witnessed a public act of contrition by Greig. Despite having a lead of 252, Clive Lloyd did not enforce the follow on. Instead he sent out Fredericks and Greenidge to lash the England bowlers around the Oval's parched expanses to the tune of 182 in 32 overs. During the carnage Greig pursued a ball towards the boundary on the western side of the ground, where the greatest concentration of West Indian supporters was located. They greeted him with deserved and vocal hostility. Twenty-five yards or so short of the boundary he fell to his knees and grovelled his the way to the fence to collect the ball. By the time he got there every boo had turned to a cheer.

Though the premise of Fire in Babylon is that Lloyd's side resolved to move away from the calypso cricketers image, it also makes clear that it played with joyous exuberance, which was why I for one couldn't have cared less how often they beat England; it was such fun to watch.

A somewhat cavalier approach to the deployment of archive material was irritating. Several times a bowler ran into bowl at, say, Lord's, only for the resulting wicket to be taken at Sydney or similar. Brian Luckhurst was shown batting left-handed at one point. Footage used to illustrate the Lord's Test in 1984 was from 1987 or later (the new Mound Stand roof was apparent).

A criticism in these parts was that the bad-tempered defeat that the West Indies suffered in these islands in 1980 was all but ignored, represented only by the famous photograph of Mikey Holding kicking a stump out of the ground at Carisbrook. As Mike Brearley said, only Holding could have made such a violent act look so graceful. The matter was raised again in the Sky commentary box the other day when a bowler accidentally removed the bails. Holding, invited to compare this with his own efforts, commented in those wonderful bass Jamaican tones that “if you're going to do something, you might as well do it properly”. I would like somebody to analyse the footage of that game (which New Zealand won by one wicket) to test my supposition that, to have produced such a reaction from a team that prided itself on controlling its emotions, the umpiring must have been atrocious. In the greater scheme of things it was insignificant, which is why it was left out.

A more substantial criticism is that the film ignored the fact that Lloyd's team was not the first from the islands to dominate international cricket. Those of Sobers and Worrell had done so for much of the sixties. Though defeated 2-1 in Australia in 1960/1 – Colin Croft scornfully dismissed the famous tickertape farewell as being for a losing team – the Australians were beaten at home as were England away in both 1963 and 1966. Then as later the team was founded on pace, then that of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, along with Sobers, and batting of class: Hunte, Kanhai, Butcher, Nurse et al. That there was no victory in Australia was because tours there took place at such long intervals, not because they were not capable.

But these points did not reduce my enjoyment of the film one bit. The interviews with players, historians and spectators (particularly with Bunny Wailer, as in Bob Marley and the) were fascinating, and the archive material full of memories. There is plenty of potential for intelligent documentary in cricket and it is to be hoped that that the success of Fire in Babylon will inspire others to emulate it.

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