Mike Gatting of England leaves the field with a broken nose after being hit by the ball during the first test against the West Indies in Jamacia in 1986 © Getty Images
Mike Gatting of England leaves the field with a broken nose after being hit by the ball during the first test against the West Indies in Jamacia in 1986 © Getty Images

 

By Akash Kaware

 

In 1995, the West Indies lost their tag of undisputed champions of Test cricket to Australia in a seismic series and started the slide down a slippery slope of defeat and despair that continues to this day. For someone like me who started following cricket only in 1996, the current bunch of no-hopers in maroon is a much more familiar sight than the juggernaut that steamrolled anything and everything that came in its way for a mind-boggling period of 15 years. For young cricket fans and old, ‘Fire in Babylon’, the much acclaimed documentary about Clive Lloyd’s great West Indies team, is a delicious glimpse into the rosy past of a once proud cricketing nation.

 

The best thing about the documentary is that it is not a bunch of doddery old cricket historians talking about this dominant team in flowery language. The speakers are the very people whom the documentary is about, the players and to some extent the fans. Viv Richards and Michael Holding are the show-stealers, but Clive Lloyd, Andy Roberts, Derryck Murray, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge all make an appearance. Add to that a bunch of truly eccentric characters like Bunny Wailer, Frank I, some Calypso artists and groundsmen, and the narration of the documentary is representative of the spirit of West Indies cricket in a way a historian or statistician could never have been. In fact, when one groundsman pronounces ‘When West Indies lose, we cry tears, maaan!’ you can’t help but be moved and wonder how much tears he must be shedding these days.

 

And then of course there are those unforgettable images. Michael Holding with that graceful run-up, which was a thing of beauty to everyone other than the hapless batsman at the other end; Richards, helmet-less and chewing gum, getting hit on the face by a bouncer, and hooking the very next ball for six; Malcolm Marshall, bowling with a broken arm in plaster and batting with one hand; that famous picture of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner together, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Every time a batsman had his jaws, nose, ribs, hands or other features rearranged – and there are plenty of such instances through the 88-minute documentary – the watcher is sure to wince, yet feel a visceral pleasure. One can only imagine what went through the minds of the batsmen themselves.

 

Exhilarating as it is to watch, the documentary is not without its flaws. The cultural impact of the success of the West Indian team and cricket’s role in bringing together those tiny specks of land in the Caribbean Sea is undeniable. But the aspect of ‘black power’, the portrayal of the West Indian success as a payback for years of oppression by their colonial masters is a tad overplayed. Many players in the documentary talk about taking out their anger on the ball and the batsmen, but the fact is, no amount of anger can make a batsman play like Viv Richards did at The Oval in 1976 or Gordon Greenidge did at Lord’s in 1984. They could play like that because they were supremely talented players, their skills honed by hours of practice. After all, when a batsman is facing a bowler bowling at 90 miles-per-hour, if he is thinking about the weight of history rather than the ball itself, it is hard to imagine him scoring any runs at all, forget about breaking records! You can try to find a higher political meaning in all events with the passage of time, but in this case, the documentary attempts to attribute the phenomenal success of the team to socio-political factors, rather than more believable ones like outstanding skills with bat and ball, and years of hard work.

 

Ditto with the intimidatory aspect of the bowling too. Throughout the documentary, fear and intimidation are a common theme. Batsmen are shown hopping all over the place to avoid bumpers, many are seen getting hit and poor old Brian Close, an elderly, but awfully brave English batsman is seen getting a thorough working over from Holding. Yet there was more to the West Indian attack than bouncers. Andy Roberts was, in Sunil Gavaskar’s words, the cleverest fast bowler there ever was. When Michael Holding took those famous 14 wickets on a featherbed of a track at The Oval in 1976, he did so by sending those batsmen to the pavilion, not to the hospital. In fact, a look at the scorecard of the particular match would tell you that of those 14 wickets, 12 were either bowled or lbw, suggesting a bowler targeting the stumps rather than batsmen’s heads. Marshall was not exactly a brainless brute either. He, along with Dennis Lillee, was probably the most complete fast bowler the game has ever seen. To the uninitiated, it would appear that the West Indian quicks were all about intimidation, that they were a bunch of nasty brutes out to hurt batsmen, not to get them out. But they were more, so much more.

 

Also the portrayal of the West Indian team before 1975 as ‘Calypso cricketers’, a bunch of players who could entertain but could not win, was shocking. The tour of Australia in 1975-76, which resulted in a chastening 1-5 defeat, largely the handiwork of Lillee and Jeff Thomson, is said to have galvanized the team to come together, which then went on to conquer everything there was there was to conquer on a cricket field. However, it must be noted that though the West Indies became truly invincible under Lloyd, they had been winning more than they had been losing since the time of Frank Worrell, who doesn’t find more than a passing mention. The 1976 shellacking of England is said to be the ultimate triumph against their old colonial masters, when in fact, they had beaten England in England in 1950, 1963, 1966 and 1973 as well. A movie might be forgiven for taking dramatic liberties, a documentary cannot be.

 

For all its inaccuracies that might irk a knowledgeable cricket fan, the documentary still makes for delightful viewing. After all, when the subjects themselves are so fascinating, you hardly need to create drama. Sometimes true stories are enough to give you goose bumps.

 

(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would’ve been a successful international cricketer if it hadn’t been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A few months ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)