In January 1976, after the Australian cricket team again beat the West Indies by a massive margin in a Test match, an Australian cricket writer wrote: “If ever the West Indies could match the determination of the Australians, they would win more Tests, but they would not be so entertaining.”
Soon after, the West Indies, led by Clive Lloyd and inspired by Vivian Richards among others, decided to end the stereotype of easy-going “calypso cricketers” who did not have the discipline and drive to win.
The West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s, with its fearsome fast bowlers and attacking but entertaining batsmen, became one of the most incredible success stories not just in sports, but also in the fight against racism and the revival of a culture post-colonialism.
Bouncer:(clockwise from top right) A poster of the documentary; West Indies supporters in Leeds, 1984; and Michael Holding bowls a vicious ball to English cricketer Derek Underwood. Patrick Eagar
Director Stevan Riley’s documentary film Fire in Babylon, which released worldwide on 20 May, captures this era through extensive archival footage, interviews and a pulsating reggae soundtrack. Edited excerpts from an interview with Riley:
You’ve made one sports documentary before, ‘Blue Blood’, on boxing in Oxford. What inspired ‘Fire in Babylon’?
In 1984, I saw Malcolm Marshall bowl for the first time. I remember Andy Lloyd got hit badly by a Marshall delivery. I was 9, transfixed by the pace of Marshall and terrified for the English batsmen. That team really changed cricket, and got me hooked to the game. I was a West Indies fan before I was an England fan, so this film has been a long time coming.
What kind of research did you do for the film? How long did it take to complete the project?
I locked myself in for a few months with every book I could find on West Indies cricket. I began with C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, and all available biographies and autobiographies of players from that team. I backpacked through the West Indies for three weeks, when I met (Michael) Holding and bounced off ideas with him.
I was determined to tell the story from the West Indies’ perspective, give it that Caribbean flavour. I sourced archival footage from production houses, television channels and libraries in Australia, England and the West Indies. Getty gave me access to their backroom and I spent a few days going through photographs that weren’t even in their system. Photographer Patrick Eagar let me go through all his contact sheets of unpublished photographs and pick from them.
It took me eight months just to edit. So there’s a lot of stuff in the film no one has ever seen before, and it’s all heavily tied up to the music.
The film’s soundtrack— legendary reggae and dub tracks—are mostly set to literally jaw-breaking fast bowling by the Windies…
I pay a lot of attention to music in my films. I loaded my iPod with reggae and dub and walked around London playing it non-stop until I found something that really clicked. Some of the fast bowling had me wincing. I saw Robin Smith being targeted in 1980, and I’m watching it in the raw. You could really feel the pain. I thought how do you get out of that stuff, four guys bowling at that speed? The West Indies imperative at that time was to move forward, move fast and leave their colonial past behind. Maybe that’s why the pace quartet became the symbol of their team, a kind of violent rebellion on the pitch.
Richards says “my bat was my sword”. Would you say your film is more about broader issues of politics and race than about cricket?
That’s probably true. The word “Babylon” in Rastafarian lingo means a system of repression. This is a story about how the West Indies team used cricket to fight everything from racism to the idea that they were just a bunch of lazy, party-loving guys who would take defeat lying down. It was also amazing to see how many Rastafarians were close to the team, considering all the cricketers came out of a strictly British education system that actively subverted their culture. Viv had a teacher who became an active Rastafarian and had a huge impact on him. Most people know Bob Marley as a football fan, but he loved cricket too and he was close to Viv.
What were your interviews with the cricketers like?
Viv was brilliant. He really has this gravitas that draws you in—you know, when he says something, he really means it. Most of that team in the 1970s was fresh out of school and you needed people like Viv, who was really steely and aware, to remind the players what they were fighting for. Colin Croft was incredibly honest. Gordon Greenidge gave a sensitive interview about the problems he faced growing up in England. Bunny Wailer (a reggae legend who was one of the driving forces behind the band Bob Marley & The Wailers) travelled all the way to the other side of Kingston because he wanted to wear his cricket whites for the interview!
Fire in Babylon does not have an India release date. It will be out on DVD on 6 June.