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

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect