Cricket. I must confess, until recently, I had more interest in the insect than the sport and, even then, I can’t remember the last time I thought fondly of a cricket… Jiminy Cricket of Walt Disney Pinocchio fame, maybe… So the prospect of sitting down to 83 minutes of men talking sport really wasn’t something I was looking forward to or expecting to enjoy, and I just couldn’t imagine a human interest angle that would stir me.
When I think of the sport I think of men in white playing the genteel sport in quaint little English towns or on village greens – an image easily conjured up given that I spent part of my childhood in a small English town in Essex on a street that led to a recreation ground where cricket was a regular summer activity. Not that I ever watched a game – as far as I was concerned, players and spectators alike were trespassing on my playing turf and I couldn’t wait for them to leave, and take their picnic hampers with them!
Of course, much later I knew it wasn’t just played by white men, or even just English men, but it was still a relic of colonialism, something the governing classes took with them to while away balmy evenings in far flung outposts of the Empire, and something which the “natives” picked up from their colonial masters. And that’s, perhaps, where I should have started paying more attention. Another part of my childhood was spent in Nigeria where, unlike football (soccer, if you’re American), it is not a popular sport. The only person I know who was an avid cricket fan went to one of the handful of boys schools that were founded during days of Empire and run along the lines of the English public school system, replete with the stuffy, elitist sport if cricket. However, while seeing barefoot African children playing football is a common sight in many parts of the continent, it seems that on most Caribbean islands, barefoot boys replace makeshift goal posts with makeshift wickets. How it, instead of soccer, came to be a sport of the people, Stevan Riley's excellent documentary, Fire in Babylon, doesn’t mention, but it does go into powerfully moving detail of how it became a force for regional pride and a metaphor for post colonial revolt.
The blurb goes:
Charting the glorious supremacy of the West Indies cricket team throughout the late 70s and 80s, this film describes how the bat and ball was more effective than gunfire in the battle against racial injustice and struggle for black rights.
In a turbulent era of apartheid in South Africa; race-riots in England and civil unrest in the Caribbean, the West Indian cricketers struck a wonderfully defiant blow at the forces of white prejudice world-wide.
With Caribbean flair, fearless spirit and a thumping reggae beat, they hijacked the genteel game of the privileged elite and replayed it on their own terms. By dominating at the highest level - longer than any team in the history of sport – their symbolic declaration was clear: people of colour will not be dictated to – on a cricket ground or in any other field of life.
‘Fire in Babylon’ boasts dynamic archive, classic music by the likes of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Gregory Issacs and Burning Spear, and is a story that celebrates the emancipation of a people through the sport of cricket.
Fire in Babylon uses first hand accounts from members of the West Indian cricket team, from team captains, Sir Clive Lloyd and Sir Vivian Richards, to other team members. With players coming from a range of 12 island nations, there wasn’t exactly a singular national pride to help forge a strong team identity and they were renowned for their entertainment value at international tournaments rather than their sporting skill. Referred to as the calypso cricket team, they seemed to provide light relief, entertaining the cricketing world while the real teams gone on with the real game. But sometime in the 1970s, following humiliating defeat as well as constant abuse, then team captain, Clive Lloyd, decided enough was enough and things suddenly took a resounding turn.
From being an international joke, the team went on the become global champions for 15 years straight, trouncing all comers to the point where a change in bowling rules was instigated in order to minimise the use of skills and strategies that were considered harmful and aggressive (even though similar fast bowling tactics were used by the Australian team in the early 70s to humiliate and intimidate their opponents). As the team went from strength to strength, victory to victory, so too did too did a cultural revival that took pride in African heritage sweep across the Caribbean and among people of Caribbean descent who'd migrated to chillier, largely unwelcome climes (including and especially England), with names like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff making their mark both at home and abroad with their brand of black pride, as well as a greater awareness of and willingness to identify with the struggles of black people around the world, as personified by the likes of Mohammed Ali and Nelson Mandela.
With a rousing reggae soundtrack, insightful, informative and inspiring Fire in Babylon shows how a people pushed too far can go from ridiculed to revered, from minstrel to master, and how discipline, determination, self pride and self belief can unite and inspire far beyond a crick ground. Riveting and exciting stuff. Jiminy who…?