Hard-edged battle for equality using cricket

In this exhilarating true-to-life tale of sporting endeavour, Stevan Riley’s documentary, Fire in Babylon, shows that while sport can be used by teams to wage war without carnage, it can also serve as a vehicle of emancipation for a colonised people.

Focusing on the history of the West Indian cricket team which dominated international cricket in the 1970s and the ’80s, Riley uses a mix of archival footage, reggae and calypso music and a charismatic coterie of former players and observers to link the sport to the Caribbean people’s desire to reconstruct their individuality in the wake of independence from Britain.

While examining the effects of imperialist white rule on the twelve ‘West Indian’ island nations of the Caribbean, the film largely charts the career of the ‘Windies’ team as they struggled to shed their reputation as entertaining, ‘Calypso Cricket’ losers.

The story follows a pattern common to most sports movies. Crushed by defeat, the team is reborn through humiliation and catharsis. A devastating blow in a brutal, racially-charged tour of Australia in 1975 led the ‘Windies’ to England where the opposition’s South African-born captain, Tony Greig, famously declared his intention to make them “grovel.”

Learning to adapt ‘fast bowler’ tactics pioneered by the Australians, the West Indians bruised and battered White English and Australian opponents, earning historic, sweeping victories as a symbolic rejection of their colonial past. The victories inspired a generation of West Indians. Bob Marley regarded the team as heroes and as the vanguard of the fledgling black power movement sweeping the world.

With a quartet of fast bowlers, including the six-foot eight Joel Garner, the incorruptible Michael Holding, the unsmiling Andy Roberts and the controversial Colin Croft, together nicknamed the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,’ (although Holding and Roberts also sported the sobriquets of ‘Whispering Death’ and ‘Hit Man’ respectively), the team began dismantling the philosophy of ‘Babylon’ — described in the film by Bunny Wailer (of ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’ fame) as an unjust practice which encouraged racism and inequality.

Those watching the film may come away with how the ‘Windies’ maintained their 15-year winning spree through the precise execution of fast bowling and batting. But the keen viewer will see something else: how an entire people reclaimed their identity through sport.

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