Fire In Babylon

Waited in line Thursday night to catch Fire In Babylon, a hugely compelling documentary of the West Indies cricket team (1975-1985). My quick review: this is an unbelievable piece of cricket folklore. Get the DVD now. My long review:

1. I’m young, so I missed this whole era. To be re-introduced to legends like Viv Richards was hugely gratifying. It’s not just that Richards was a good batsman; he also had, as he says, a certain amount of swagger — chewing gum while batting; staring at upstart bowlers; not wincing when hit by a fast ball. Few batsmen have that same presence now, even though batsmen rule the game now. (The best part of this movie is seeing batsmen squirm; few in the audience will realize just how far the scales have tipped in their favor since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ruled.)

2. The film itself does a good job of moving quickly (though the Kerry Packer episode could have been edited out, in my opinion). First, it sets up the political/cultural moment in the Caribbean circa 1960s/1970s, so as to explain just why the West Indies cricket team mattered so much. Then, it follows the team’s initial failure in Australia, to its never-ending victories. A good amount of political commentary as well.

2A. It could have been better with more cricket though. There’s a moment when the film slows to show Michael Holding bowling an angry over in England, and it’s electrifying. (It’s this over, against B. Close.) The producers/editors should have done more of this — though I understand why they felt wary, given that they were trying to get as big an audience as possible. (Seeing Malcom Marshall catch and bat with a broken arm — simply incredible.)

3. How brutal is cricket? I complain now about injuries to cricketers, and they are serious, but to watch what batsmen faced in those days…the audience in the cinema gasped several times, and with each one, you got the sense they had discovered a Big Lie — this cricket, it hasn’t and never has been for gentlemen! What separates this from rugby?

4. The movie’s central premise, though, is a difficult one for me. Basically, Clive Lloyd and the West Indians swear never again to fare as badly as they did while touring Australia in 1975, when Lilee/Thompson scared the form out of them. Lloyd’s answer — we can bowl just as fast as they can — is satisfying on one level (political equality; beating the masters at their own game), but also disappointing (imitation isn’t the best political protest). Now, there’s a place for this logic initially in the post-colonial moment — I just don’t think it’s useful 60/70 years on. In other words: India, please, please, don’t try to become Australia. Imagine a different trajectory! (See Gandhi/Tagore’s views on nationalism for more on this line of thought.)

5. The filmmakers made a smart, but risky, decision to feature only West Indians talking about West Indian cricket. You see almost no one else — no Ian Botham, no Tony Grieg — in the present day reflecting on that period. I like it. This is as much about history and the power of a region’s narrative as it is about what the world thinks.

6. I feel really, really sorry for Colin Croft.

7. Sunil Gavaskar comes off very badly. The next time you hear him commentating in his trademark condescending tone — oh, these batsmen, they don’t know how bad we had it! — remind him about India’s disastrous tour of the West Indies.

8. The central mystery remains, though: how did one region — mere dots on the globe, as one team member said — produce so many greats over such an extended period?

8A. It’s hard, by the end of the movie, to see these old West Indian men talk about their team. You see footage of them bowling, batting, protesting, training, and drinking beer in their dressing rooms…The best part about Fire in Babylon isn’t just that it’s a great historical tribute to these athletes; it’s also a two-hour exercise in nostalgia and lives and days gone by.

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7 thoughts on “Fire In Babylon

  1. fckingblog says:

    I hope this comes out on big screens in India, I too have barely seen their play except the often poorly complied videos on Youtube. Was looking forward to another docu about Ireland’s 07 WC campaign till talk about it petered out.

    And I’m sure thinking about the current WI squad adds to the longing this docu stirs up.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      Definitely. The film technically ends with Viv Richards taking over in the mid-1980s, and it doesn’t address what the team became now. Which, I think, is appropriate — given that the political/economic changes since the 1970s in the Carribean.

      Too bad about that Ireland film — I’d like to see something about Irish cricket, though.

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Rohan,Wonderful review.

  3. […] reviews of Fire in Babylon, the documentary of the West Indies team circa 1975-1995. I gave it more than charitable praise, but I recognize its limitations — as both Samir and new blogger Satadru Sen note, it’s […]

  4. fromthegully says:

    I am old enough to remember the glory days of WI. I remember listening to early morning radio commentary during the “disastrous”(your words) Indian tour of WI in 1975-76 as well as the earlier WI tour of India in 1974-75. Just a few observations.
    1. After a losing the first test(typical!), India was in a winning position in the second before rain saved WI.(Gavaskar’s 156 gave India a 150+ runf lead). India won the third test after a stunning fourth innings victory chase (402-3, only the second time in history a team successfully chased a target over 400). ‘Jimmy’ Amarnath anchored the chase with 85 over 7 hours allowing the others to bat freely around him. Gavaskar (112) and Viswanath (102) scored centuries, Brijesh Patel blitzed 49*. Incidentally the Port-of-spain crowd was clearly pro-India reflecting the racist divide of blacks/Indian descent. Ironically Kallicharan, he of Indian descent, played the best knock by a West Indian in this test (102).
    2. The bowler who troubled Indians the most in these tests was Holder, medium paced swing/seam bowler. Bedi and Chandrashekar were the primary wicket takers for India. Madanlal was the opening bowler.
    3. On the first day of the final teat, Roberts and more particularly Holding resorted to short pitched bowling. Still the technically deficient Gaekwad played a magnificient knock of 81 taking numerous hits on the body before retiring hurt. From memory, Jimmy scored 50+ as did Vengsarkar as India scored a pretty good 280+ on pitch tailored for the WI quicks before the carnage began. Vide Lloyd’s instructions, Holding gave up all attempts to go for wickets once the Indian top order showed signs of fight, and began to deliberately bowl beamers aimed at the body, injuring most of the remaining batsmen. The bowlers also deliberately aimed to hurt the bowling arms/hands of Bedi/Chandra and neither was able to bowl effectively. The hand injuries become worse after bowling. India in fact had only 6 fit batmen in their second innings and were all out after losing only 5 wickets.
    4. That Madanlal was the ‘fastest’ Indian Bowler says enough of India’s retaliatory capacity. WI’s intimidatory tactics against teams with better pace bowlers consisted largely of high paced short pitched bowling and never beamers directed at the head (Vensarkar), heart (Gaekwad) or hands/arms (Bedi/Chandra).
    5. India lost the ‘disastrous series’ 1-2.
    6. The next year, Pakistan led by Imran’s pace, played a magnificient series in the WI and while they did not win, they were certainly the last truly competitive team in the Carribbean for the next 10-12 years. Obviously no body aiming beamers were bowled by the WI.
    7. I used to consider Vishy superior to Gavaskar when it came to playing pace. In hindsight this is colored by Vishy’s batting in the precious 1974 series against the scariest pace bowling I had seen till then. Gavaskar was absent in 3 tests of this series. but Vishy lost this edge too soon thanks to a fondness for beer. After 1982-83 Pakistan series I rated Jimmy higher than Gavaskar against pace but he scored a series of ungainly ducks in 1984 against WI pace at home. Much to my annoyance, Gavaskar did not have any such struggle against pace during all of this period and I had to grudgingly accept that he was the superior batsmen to my heroes.
    8. When I see the like of an armoured ‘hero’ like Raina fumble against short pitched bowling on flat tracks, I am tempted to throw him back into Sabina park without armour against Holding’s 95-99 mph beamers and Roberts’ ‘perfume balls’. Would he (exaggeration alert!) even live long enough to tell the tale? I am not surprised that a been there done that curmudgeon like Gavaskar is annoyed at such incompetence. He has NOT forgotten the tour.
    9. The intimidation practiced by the WI is the primary reason that rules began to be introduced in favour of the batsman. It has been now carried to the other extreme in these days of flat tracks and armoured batsman. With no signs of the balance being restored, we tend to view WI intimidation through rose-coloured glasses and sigh for lost art of pace bowling.

  5. […] footage had a special moment in Fire in Babylon (the last time I bring this up, I promise!): slow-motion Michael Holding, a.k.a. Whispering Death. […]

  6. […] 2) Roberts has just come off a tour promoting the new cricket documentary Fire in Babylon. For those who’ve resisted my (and others’) countless reviews, the film basically is a […]

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