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.