To modern cricket viewers in India, it can be difficult to associate the West Indies with success on the pitch. A soon-to-be-released documentary, however, hopes to change the way the team is looked at and show that our nostalgia is wholly justified

It was impossible to escape the impression last winter, at the end of the West Indies’ tour of India, that the visitors’ defeat had disappointed some of us too. There was no excessive glorying in the victory for our side, no overzealous celebration; instead, every West Indian success — however small — was seized upon, every marginal accomplishment clutched at, encouragement sought in every half-decent passage of play. It was almost as if some of us secretly wanted the West Indies to win.

To those born beyond the late 1980s, this sentiment may seem incomprehensible, but to earlier generations, cricketing heroes came mostly in maroon. “Other than being great players, there was something about them,” smiles K.N. Ramesh, 44 years old and one of the millions of West Indies nostalgics the world over. “You could make out that they loved what they were doing; they just radiated so much joy. It was incredible.”

Between March 1976 and January 1988 — as Ramesh went through school and college — the West Indies won 43 of the 91 Test matches they played, losing only nine. The first significant stirrings of downfall were felt at the turn of the decade, the aura slipping inch by inch before crumbling with the series defeat to Australia in 1995 — their first in close to 15 years. Since then, they have lost 85 out of 158 Tests against the major nations (excluding Zimbabwe and Bangladesh), winning only 26.

“You may rationalise and explain why they declined,” Ramesh sighs, “but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept. Look at their body language during the India series; it was as if they’d given up. It just hurts to see a West Indies team like this. It really hurts.”

It cannot be said how much Stevan Riley’s Fire in Babylon will help the likes of Ramesh’s son understand the genesis of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ love affair with the West Indies cricket team — but it is definitely a starting point. The documentary feature chronicles, vividly, the human face of the struggles and triumphs. Among the sceptical, that always stands a better chance of appreciation than numbers.

Releasing September 21 in India, Riley’s project charts the rise of the West Indies cricket team, from patronised ‘calypso cricketers’ to world beaters. The film premiered at the London Film Festival in 2010, before opening to resounding reviews in the U.K. last year. Executive Producer Ben Goldsmith hopes the film will reignite interest in cricket in the Caribbean and revive the West Indies’ fortunes (see interview). “We complain that young cricketers in the West Indies are not focused on what cricket means to the Caribbean and all they are doing is playing for themselves,” said Michael Holding, whose role in the narrative is a prominent one, in London last year. “What this film will tell them is the history of West Indies cricket, where it’s coming from and that it’s not just a sport.”

The story begins at the end of the 1975-76 series in Australia, when Clive Lloyd’s men return home disgraced, reeling from the 5-1 pounding Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson had given them. “I remember Clive said: ‘never again’,” Viv Richards recounts in the trailer. “’If we can find some fast bowlers, let us see how well they can handle it.’”

Although their famed quartet was to fully form only a couple of years after the Australia debacle, in debutants Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel, (Andy Roberts was rested for two of the four matches), the West Indies offered a proper foretaste of what lay in the years ahead when India came calling. With the series level at 1-1, in the final Test on an unpredictable Sabina Park pitch, three Indian batsmen were hit and injured. Outraged, the captain Bishan Singh Bedi declared with six wickets down in the first innings, while in the second only five could bat (two more players having picked up injuries while fielding). Opinion was sharply divided. The tourists were furious with what they deemed deliberately dangerous bowling while the home side said India was merely whingeing.

Despite the ill-feeling that the Jamaica Test seemed to breed, there was little of it to be felt when the West Indies toured India in 1979. Alvin Kallicharan led a team depleted by moves to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, but it was one that still managed to win 1-0. “Kalli had a very good rapport with the Indian team,” recalls G.R. Viswanath, the only batsman on this side, along with Sunil Gavaskar, to handle their bowling with any degree of comfort. “So it was all very cordial. It probably helped that they had one or two players of Indian origin.”

When Indian teams travelled to the Caribbean, they found they were greeted well (too well by the local ‘East Indians’, in places like Trinidad and Guyana, for the home team’s liking), with particular respect for those who stood up to their bowlers. “When we landed there in ’83, there was a Rastafarian waiting for us,” recollects Anshuman Gaekwad, who had batted through pain in Jamaica. “He asked for me, Sunny maan (Gavaskar) and Vishy maan (Viswanath). He waved at us but was distraught when we said Viswanath hadn’t come (having retired earlier that month).”

West Indian players too took to India, speaking warmly of the passion for cricket they saw here. Richards, perhaps the most-adored West Indian player in these parts, made his debut in Bangalore in 1974 — the first Test match at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium. V. Balendu Mouli, a retired Karnataka umpire, has little trouble recalling images from that game. “What a sight Lloyd was! He’d set his front foot down and pull the ball from six feet in front of him; such was his reach.” A nervous Richards made four and three with the bat, but held Gavaskar (diving, according to Mouli, “like a goalkeeper”) and Farokh Engineer at short leg. The catches, Richards later felt, probably kept him in the side.

A full-strength West Indies team returned in October 1983, exacting severe vengeance for the defeat in the World Cup final in June. Holding and the late Malcolm Marshall took 30 and 33 wickets in the series (the latter surpassing Roberts’ 32 from 1974-75, till then the best returns for a West Indian bowler in India), as the visitors won 3-0, two of those Tests by an innings. K.V. Rajagopal, a veteran spectator of Test matches at Kolkata, remembers with child-like delight Marshall’s nine for 102 at the Eden Gardens on that tour. “He made the most of the early morning mist; my God, what a terrific sight! I couldn’t even spot the ball,” he exclaims. Yet, there was no great disappointment at India’s loss. “It didn’t feel so bad because they were the West Indies. People loved them; they played the game in the right spirit and they just didn’t play for a draw. Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd and those bowlers — how could they play for a draw?”

Does part of the reason for India’s general support for the West Indies cricket team also lie in their race? Maybe. But there was no inconsiderable thrill among Indian supporters in 1976 when Lloyd’s men crushed England 3-0. Fire in Babylon draws a link here, between the exploits of the unstoppable West Indies team and cultural liberation in the Caribbean. As their cricketers marched on, beating the world, West Indians went to work with a pride they hadn’t known, and expressed themselves in ways they hadn’t been allowed to. Babylon — the Rastafarian term for systems of oppression and discrimination — was on fire.

The series had assumed extra significance in light of Tony Greig’s threat on TV to make the visitors ‘grovel’. “If the West Indians are on top they are magnificent,” he said on the BBC’s Sportsnight programme. “If they are down, they grovel. And, with the help of Closey (Brian Close) and a few others, I intend to make them grovel.” (The clip is included in full in the film.) The West Indian players were gathered for a team meeting in the hotel when they heard Greig’s comments. Once the connotations of those remarks, from a player of South African origin, became apparent, “that team meeting and every subsequent one on that tour was made instantly made redundant,” wrote Richards, in his autobiography, Sir Vivian. “This was the greatest motivating speech the England captain could have given to any West Indian team.”

The bowlers — Holding and Roberts eventually finished with 28 wickets apiece — unleashed their full fury on Greig, and whoever his unfortunate partner happened to be. The England captain was bowled five times in the series, making serious runs only at Headingley. Thousands of the immigrant West Indian community poured into the Oval, from neighbouring Brixton, for the final Test of the series. And what a show their heroes put on! The tourists won by 231 runs, Holding taking a career and West Indies-best 14 for 149, and Richards walloping his all-time high score of 291. What was more, Holding bowled Greig in both innings, leaving the crowd delirious.

“At one level, this was like your hero beating up the bully,” chuckles Ramesh. And there was no better embodiment of this figure than Richards, who made 829 runs in seven innings that series (“I was grovelling at 291; yeah Tony Greig — you got me out,” upon his dismissal at the Oval). While his colleagues were spreading terror in the ranks of the opposition, he had no worries facing any bowler himself. “Fast bowlers are basically bullies who try to intimidate batsmen,” he wrote, in all his withering, gum-chewing disdain. “My attitude was: don’t treat me like that. I have a bat and you only have a ball.”

Hunting in a pack

In 1977 debuted Colin Croft and ‘Big Bird’ Joel Garner (“I don’t need no mid-on and I don’t need no mid-off and all the batsman will need is a stepping ladder”), thus completing a foursome of bowlers unalloyed in their pace. “Way back into history, fast bowlers had always hunted in pairs but never four at a time,” observed Dickie Bird, the pre-eminent umpire of that era, in his autobiography. “[Clive Lloyd] brought in four quickies, one at one end, a second at the other, and two more resting at third man and fine leg waiting to take over. There was no respite, no getting away from them. This was something completely different.”

The West Indies took the 1979 World Cup, before beating Australia, England, India and Pakistan in Test series. In 1982, Marshall replaced Croft; Roberts retired the next year while Holding followed in ’87. The film closes at the team’s zenith, the 5-0 ‘Blackwash’ of England in 1984. Although nowhere near the peak of their powers in the nineties, the West Indies remained unbeaten in a Test series till midway through the decade, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh delaying the inevitable.

No other team, Holding states, as the credits roll, dominated any sport for 15 years. The West Indies may not have gone anywhere near the same heights again, but those feats still remain staggering. “It smarts out there that they really haven’t been as good,” Riley said in an interview last year. “People kept talking about the decline and I had to remind them that this was about the glory days.” The grief of watching the West Indies wither, though, will never fade away, Ramesh believes. “Look, it is a very personal bond you form with your boyhood team,” he states, painfully. “I do not think that you will understand. You have never watched Richards bat.”

More than just cricket

Ben Goldsmith, Executive Producer of Fire in Babylon, talks about the making of the film and its reception.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

I’ve always been a big cricket fan. Also, my sister Jemima was married to Imran Khan and I grew up with Imran telling me lots of stories about this West Indies team. So I told [producer] Charles Steel that we should do this film, and so we went out and found a director. Imran was very helpful in arranging interviews with the players.

The movie is more than just about cricket. But was there a fear that it would be perceived as just a cricket film?

We made a conscious effort to ensure that that didn’t happen. The story is about independent island nations emerging from colonial rule and the cultural revolution – especially in music – that took place in the region. Cricket was simply the centrepiece of a much broader emancipation process.

There has been criticism that Fire in Babylon tries too hard to fit certain ideas into the narrative, that some aspects – particularly the racial bit – have been overstated.

We wanted the film to be a story told by the protagonists, in their own words, and this is how they chose to tell it. Maybe the film became more political than it could have been but that’s how the players felt at the time. It meant more than sport to them. But there was no conscious effort from the production team to make it political.

How was the film received in the Caribbean?

Oh, they absolutely loved it. We’re now trying to get as many people there to watch it as possible. It’s part of the school curriculum in Jamaica, Antigua and St. Lucia. So kids will watch it, and we hope they’re inspired by it and it triggers a revolution. The current players liked it too. Tino Best credited Fire in Babylon after he played that record knock (95, highest score by a no.11 in Tests), and Darren Sammy and Chris Gayle have referred to it.

Why is it releasing in India a year after it opened in the UK?

It was purely logistical. We wanted to find exactly the right partner for it. India has a similar history, although independence came much earlier. So we hope people will be able to relate to it.

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