Stevan Riley’s documentary, Fire In Babylon, reminiscing over the golden age of West Indian cricket, is a must-watch for fans of the game.
The ’70s to the early ’80s was something of a renaissance period in cricketing history. You were either around to see it, or you’ve heard near-mythical stories from the time. It saw the rise to sporting glory of an erstwhile colonised part of the world, the Caribbean, that would go on to turn the gentleman’s game on its head. Whether or not you were a fan of the West Indies (an older generation will tell you it was hard not to be), it was sheer joy to watch them dominate the sport with a swaggering ease.
Think several Usain Bolts (the sprinter is also Jamaican) in a team, winning, while having fun.
British director Stevan Riley’s documentary, Fire In Babylon, looks back at that era. “I was never a fanatical cricket fan, but as a kid, it was exciting to watch the West Indies play. Theirs was a dangerous, athletic cricket that changed the gentle game you were used to seeing while eating cucumber sandwiches,” says Riley.
His narrative is a sort of Empire-fights-back-on-the-cricketing-field that drew inspiration from the Black pride movement its older root: the spiritual Rastafarian movement. During a time of civil disturbance in the Caribbean, their cricket team became the symbol of resilience.
Its heroes were legendary players like Sir Vivian Richards, Sir Clive Lloyd, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Joel Garner. “They had a sense of shared responsibility of West Indian history and ambition. They’d grown up on the music of Bob Marley and were aware of their African roots,” says Riley.
The documentary traces the team’s on-field heroics and its larger political contexts. It took Riley a year to make, during which he read the players’ autobiographies and interviewed the likes of Lloyd and Richards. Ask him if they were ever direct victims of racial politics, and he says, “Andy Roberts said, ‘Some things are best left unspoken’. They never presented themselves as victims. On the field, they never sledged back. They let their cricket do the talking.”
The decline that followed, however, is one that the West Indian team never recovered from. Riley says, “It was a quirk of history that they had two exceptional generations back to back.” Either that, or the motivation to prove a point just diminished gradually.