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'Fire in Babylon': Who Doesn't Love an Underdog Story?

Having lived in Pakistan for ten years, where obsession with the sport borders on religious frenzy, I can attest that there is something about the rhythm of cricket, its endless ebb and flow, that is bewitchingly hypnotic.

Fire in Babylon

Director: Stevan Riley
Cast: Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Dennis Lillee
Distributor: New Video
Rated: no rating
Release date: 2011-10-18

It's a shame that cricket isn't more popular in the USA, because it's a great game. Then again, attention-deficit-prone Americans might have a tough time wrapping their heads around a game whose short version takes an entire day to get through and whose long form takes up to five days and still doesn't always guarantee a result. Having lived in Pakistan for ten years, where obsession with the sport borders on religious frenzy, I can attest that there is something about the rhythm of the game, its endless ebb and flow, that is bewitchingly hypnotic.

It's also a fiercely political sport, one of the great legacies of the British Empire; not as significant as the English language, perhaps, but culturally powerful, nonetheless. A quick rundown of major cricketing powers serves as a de facto snapshot of Victoria's territories: Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, South Africa, the West Indies, and of course, England itself.

Fire in Babylon documents the rise of cricket greatness in the West Indies in the '70s, as this disparate group of islands forged a unified team from a disunited group of players who shared little besides a general geographical homeland. At the time, though, the West Indies were feeling their influence on the world stage—Bob Marley was perhaps the best known musician in the world, and the region was enjoying something of a political and cultural renaissance.

The cricket team felt this shift and wanted to be a part of it. Theirs is a fascinating story, not least because of that political (and racial) subtext—a story of underdogs beating the bullies at their own game, literally, and then being castigated for it.

First, some background. The West Indies were a cricketing punch line in the early '70s, the team providing much material for British tabloid healdine writers, who made snide remarks about "calypso cricket" and whose disdain was tainted with no small amount of racism. Into this unwelcome environment entered Clive Lloyd, the man charged with captaining his team and converting them into an effective unit through a combination of relentless drilling and unswerving discipline.

It wasn't easy. The team had some talented bowlers (the equivalent of pitchers in baseball) like Michael Holding and Viv Richards, but the group lacked the ferocity of other national squads. Cricket has long been known as "the gentleman’s game", and the West Indies still played it that way. The rest of the world, however, was learning not to.

The Australians were particularly vicious. Fast bowler Dennis Lillee was famous for bowling in such a way that the balls would strike the batsmen—no small concern when the hard ball was flying at 90mph or more. In cricket, the ball is bounced on the ground between bowler and batsman, and a skilled bowler uses the uncertainty of that bounce, along with the spin and speed of the ball, to get a batsman out—or in Lillee's case, to strike him in the chest, groin or head. At the time, batsmen wore little protective gear. Broken bones were not uncommon.

When the West Indian team toured Australia in the mid-'70s, they were forced to contend with all this, in addition to the abusive language heaped on them by Australian fans and media and even the team itself. Racial slurs were common, delivered with a vindictiveness that would be shocking even today. Battered and bloody, the Caribbean squad returned home to regroup and lick its wounds.

This is where the story takes off. Through hard work and relentless practice, West indian bowlers learned the tactics of the Australians, then perfected them, then took them even further. On subsequent tours of England and Australia, the outcome would be markedly different.

That pesky racial/ethnic subtext kept popping up, though. Unused to being beaten by a squad of Caribbean islanders, the UK press mourned the passing of "calypso cricket" and called for changes in the laws of the game to prevent the West Indians from employing their new tactics. (Funny—such calls were never heard when the Australians were doing it.) Ignoring this poor sportsmanship, the West Indian squad put together one of the most amazing records in professional sport, playing for fifteen years without losing a game. (It's not unusual for a match to end in no result, i.e., a tie, but nonetheless this is a remarkable achievement.)

Fire in Babylon is a terrific film for fans of the game, reliving one of the great eras in cricket. It's not perfect; I would have liked to see more footage of individual bowlers, especially Michael Holding, whose cheetah-like runups combined an awesome mix of grace and power. And the double-standard I mention regarding Australian belligerence versus Caribbean aggression is barely mentioned, although I suspect it must have been noted, and commented upon, by the players. These are relative trifles, however.

Extras on the DVD are minimal: an inconsequential, three-minute interview with the producer and director. This is a significant disappointment, as there must be hours of footage from the era that could have been used to document the significant players and matchups. As it is, viewers will have to be satisfied with the film itself.


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