Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fire In Babylon - Documentary

It was a question that always intrigued me. I never got the answer in its entirety until this documentary. 'Fire In Babylon' is about the record breaking West Indian cricket side that dominated world  cricket for twenty years. How did this team become so good? What drove them to excellence? What was the bonding factor? What drove them so to win mercilessly? These were my questions.

The late Rajan Bala appreciated my question when I asked him. He told me how the West Indian sociological dynamics made many of them go to England to play - something which inculcated professionalism into them. Yes, I thought, but why push oneself to that level of excellence. What made them do it? It was something bigger.

'Fire In Babylon' answers it all and well. After C.L.R. James's classic 'Beyond the Boundary' I got a fair idea of how cricket in the Windies united the blacks and gave them something to put their talents and energies into. It was only in the 60s that the West Indian islands got freedom from their white masters. But despite producing several greats of black origins including Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Sobers, Hall and others, the West Indies side was not a world beater. They were considered entertaining but not winners. Something changed all that.

How do you get a team belonging to several small nations together? A resolute and inspirational leader for one. In Clive Lloyd the West Indies found that man in 1974. Lloyd commanded respect from each and everyone. Quiet and dignified, the big man led the young West Indian team which suffered a hugely humiliating tour of Australia in 1975-76. Lillee and Thomson not only decimated the West Indies which lost the series 5-1 but the crowd and the hostility they faced drove many players to tears. Holding, Richards, Greenidge, Lloyd, Roberts were all there and they suffered the humiliation and went back almost broken - physically by the terryfying pace of the Aussie duo, and mentally by what they faced on and off the field in terms of racist taunts.

Back in the West Indies a depressed Clive Lloyd realized that if he wanted to win, and he was determined to after what he endured, he needed fast bowlers who could bowl like the Aussie bowlers. He looked at Holding, Roberts and Croft and developed the game plan of fast, intimidatory bowling by training his fast bowlers, much as Jardine did with Larwood and Voce. With four bowlers who could bowl 90 miles an hour the first team they tested out their theory on was India which toured the West Indies and the result was brutal - India once declaring early fearing physical harm to their bowlers.

Next came the series in England against Tony Greig's English men - the former slaves versus the former masters, the blacks versus the whites. Once again fighting racist taunts and a tougher opposition the West Indies needed little else to motivate them than Greig's imprudent remark before the series that he would make the West indies grovel. Lloyd apparently told his team that he had nothing to say since the opposition captain said it all. Bowling at terryifying speeds Holding, Roberts, Croft ran through a stunned English batting with bruises and injuries as the batsmen weaved and ducked to preserve themselves. The famous picture of Brian Close showing off the bruises on his body comes to mind. Brian Close, to his credit, never rubbed a single blow he took on his body, typifying the kind of men who played cricket those days. These days they'd run to the dressing room at the first sign of discomfort. Greig's Englishmen never had a chance. But what the West Indies realised was that when they won they were also playing for the black man's power and his identity in white dominated lands and this boosted them even more. Hordes of West Indian supporters would come to cheer their heroes. They would not go to work if their team lost because they could not face the taunts. Greenidge talks of how he did not know what a wog was and at one point considered talking his family back to life in the West Indies. If the fast bowlers terrorised the English batting, Viv Richards ripped apart their bowling scoring over 800 runs in four Tests. Once again, the West Indies showed their voracious appetite for victories.

The Windies then got into the World Series Cricket that Kerry Packer brought on. With the promise of better pay most of the top players went to play WSC and were banned by the West Indies Cricket Board. Halfway into the series Kerry Packer is said to have told the West Indian players (who now had nothing to go back to after being banned by their Board) that he would send them off back home on the next flight if they did not pick up their game. Taking that seriously the Windies players worked hard and took fitness and athleticism to a new level and dominated the entire WSC series, even beating the Rest of the World team.  Back home there was a clamour for inclusion of the heroes into the West Indian side and they were reinducted into the national side.

In 1979-80 in the revenge series against Australia the West Indies fought fire with fire and beat the Aussies 2-0 in their own backyard. The West Indies beat England after that and there was no looking back. Clive Lloyd retired in 1985 but Richards continued the legacy of West Indian supremacy for another ten years. From February 1980 to Mach 1995, the West Indies never lost a Test series. Famed for their aggressive batting, their fast bowling, their athleticism and their keen desire to win, the Windies set a benchmark that will always be tough to beat for any team.

With all the greats of that world beating side - Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Derryck Murray, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft speaking of their experiences with remarkable candour interspersed with clippings and songs from the Windies groups - 'Fire in Babylon' is a brilliant documentary that clearly establishes the reasons for what makes champions. Most times it is the point of no return when you have suffered enough, when you want to do or die, when you ask no quarter and give none in return, when you show no mercy, when you know that you mean business, that things rise above the ordinary and go into the realm of excellence. It is personal. It is war. And out of that pain and that fire comes greatness. Come the champions. It can never come easily. Wearing their colour, their history, their legacy proudly, the West Indians showed once and for all that any person irrespective of colour or history can never be underestimated, that people are the same or equal, and if pushed into a corner, can show the world what they are capable of. The hunted become the ring masters.

The documentary is an abject lesson for any team that wants to win, for any leader who wants results. It is borne out of single minded focus, out of clear planning, out of hard work ethic, out of expertise and excellence. It did not happen easy, nor did it happen overnight. The West Indies suffered much before they became what they were. To hear Richards talk of how it was war and how he took Hogg on in the revenge series, staring back after being hit and then pulling the next ball into the stands, Greenidge talk of the all-important 214 he made against England when all that they prepared for seemed to be crumbling, the fast bowlers talking of their single minded focus to gain advantage for their team is stuff that sends a tingle up the spine. I can watch it any number of times and feel it again and again. Great stuff. For all cricket lovers a must watch. Great job by Stevan Riley who wrote and directed the documentary.

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