REVIEW: Fire In Babylon

Between 1980 and 1995 the West Indies dominated test cricket like no other team in the history of the game. Their streak of 29 consecutive test series without defeat during that time stands as one of the most remarkable sporting achievements within any code. Yet as Steven Riley’s documentary explores, the driving force behind the West Indian team’s rise to power was as much a response to the players’ oppressive cultural past than their desire for success on the field.

Charting the years prior to the era of West Indian dominance, Fire in Babylon initially situates cricket in the context of the struggle for civil rights that took place throughout the Caribbean during the 1960s. Under the leadership of figures such as Frank Worrell, Garfield Sobers and Clive Lloyd, the documentary details how the game that once served as an instrument of colonial oppression was transformed into a vehicle in which the various island nations were unified in reasserting their independence from British rule.

It’s this examination of sport as a form of cultural and political resistance that drives the film and Riley cleverly avoids the temptation to reduce the exploits of the West Indian team to the level of a stock-standard underdog narrative. Instead, the documentary utilises interviews with various players (Lloyd, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Viv Richards) to provide a vivid portrait of the racism and discrimination experienced by the team – particularly on their tours to Australia and England – that contributed to their aggressive style of play on the field. Casting off the derogatory ‘Calypso Cricketers’ tag, the West Indies rose to become a force to be reckoned with.

In many ways Fire in Babylon is reminiscent of Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary When We Were Kings that detailed the epic boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (‘The Rumble in the Jungle’). Like Gast, Riley approaches sport not in isolation but in respect of its various cultural and historical intersections. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than when one interviewee likens Viv Richards’ refusal to play in Apartheid South Africa (despite the offer of a million dollars) to Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam.

By contrast, Colin Croft, like many other ‘rebel’ players who ventured to South Africa only to never represent the West Indies again, cuts a somewhat tragic figure, caught out by the rare lure of financial gain and his somewhat naïve belief that he was simply ‘doing his job’. The moniker ‘more than a game’ is often applied to sport but rarely has it seemed more applicable than it does here. Hopefully, Riley’s documentary will find an audience outside those spectators for whom cricket is already something of a religion.

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