When the Windies hit the world for six

A new film recalls the glory days of West Indian cricket. Geoffrey Macnab is bowled over by a remarkable sporting story.

The best sports documentaries invariably transcend their subject matter. Leon Gast's When We Were Kings (1996) and John Dower's Thriller in Manila (2008) aren't just about two of Muhammad Ali's best known fights.

They're stories about race, politics, commerce, endurance, bitterness and the human capacity for both grace and violence.

By the same token, Fire in Babylon, premiering in the London Film Festival tonight, is much more than a cricket film. Stevan Riley's remarkable documentary tells the story of the all-conquering West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and early 1980s. This was the team of Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards – and also of several of the most lethal fast bowlers of the modern cricket era. The documentary gives the lie to the idea that there have never been any decent films about cricket. You don't need to know anything about the game to appreciate what Riley is telling us about West Indian national pride and English colonial bad faith.

The narrative trajectory is straightforward enough. The West Indies team used to be dismissed as "calypso cricketers". They had players of great talent but did not win consistently. In 1975/76, they were humiliated 5-1 in a Test series against an Australian side containing the ferocious fast bowlers Jeff Thompson and Dennis Lillee. Their attitude, in the wake of this defeat, was "never again". The West Indies players were part of a generation determined to prove themselves against their former colonial masters. This was the era of Black Power and African liberation. When the English captain of the era, Tony Greig, infamously boasted in 1976 that he would make the West Indies "grovel," they made him eat his words.

There is comedy, pathos and violence in the imagery of English batsmen like Greig and the stubborn, bald-headed, 45-year-old Yorkshireman Brian Close facing up to the fast-bowling attack led by Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Andy Roberts. It is cinematic too. Certain archive scenes here play like sequences from a Mack Sennett comedy. All seems calm during the long, elegant run-up of Holding and then, a moment after the ball is released, an Englishman is down – poleaxed by one of Holding's bouncers. At one point, when Viv Richards is batting and you see him on the big screen hammer a ball, he hits it so hard that the instinct is to duck.

The English cried foul and complained that the West Indies fast-ball bombardment was against the spirit of the game. Riley acknowledges that the bowling attack did put "between 50 and 60 people" in hospital over the years, but insists that Holding and co were simply playing to the rules of the game... just as Lillee and Thomson and English 1930s fast bowler Harold Larwood had done.

Riley realised the key to the success of Fire In Babylon was winning over Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards at the outset. "They're the guys the rest of the team take their cue from, even today." Once they were aboard, Holding, Colin Croft, Gordon Greenidge... and reggae star Bunny Wailer followed. Viv Richards was friendly with Bob Marley, himself a keen cricket fan who could "bowl every ball".

Cricket in the West Indies today has nothing like the hold on the popular imagination that it did in the 1970s. As Riley notes, the game is no longer part of the zeitgeist in the way it was during the Viv Richards era. "This film is about a very specific generation – the generation that overlapped the era of independence. Suddenly, you had this group of youngsters who want to make a firm statement that they'd broken with their colonial past and wanted to put the West Indies on the map. This surge of ambition was, in many ways, peculiar to that generation."

Fire in Babylon is a tribute to one of the best international cricket teams in recent memory but the sport is just the starting point – and that's why the film makes such rich and rewarding viewing.

'Fire in Babylon' premieres at the London Film Festival ( www.bfi.org.uk/lff) tonight and screens on Thursday

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn