Sport on Film: Pitch battle that rightly gives Windies their place in history

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The Independent Culture

There's a scene towards the end of Fire in Babylon when Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley's band) stops berating his dogs and says of Viv Richards: "If he had not gone into cricket, he would surely have been a dreadlock rasta man. Real deal." It's a delightful moment that had the audience cracking up. But you couldn't help thinking how different things might have been if the Master Blaster had just sat around all day smoking big spliffs rather than flaying England's bowlers to all parts.

This film about the rise and rise of West Indies cricket in the 1970s certainly seemed to be a crowd favourite. It's the first film that this correspondent has seen where the audience spontaneously applauded at the end since Top Gun came out in the United States in 1986. But there are no fighter pilots and certainly no homoerotic volleyball – though there are obligatory idyllic beach scenes.

However, there are fast bowlers who imagined they were delivering bullets and were literally wounding their opponents. And it all started in Australia in 1975, when the Windies were themselves battered by Lillee and Thomson. Michael Holding says: "It wasn't cricket, it was a military assault." And he should know.

Not only that but there was vicious sledging and racism, leading Gordon Greenidge to describe himself as "degraded and downgraded". It was a turning point; when they returned in 1980, they had four fast bowlers, not two, and the Aussies felt the full force of their revenge. "I don't go out to hit people, it's just that a lot of people got hit," says Andy Roberts, the scariest of them all. "When the pace is real hot, they will touch it and they will walk." Australians walking? Surely not. Aussies deliberately getting themselves out? Strewth.

There were, in fact, many "turning points": Clive Lloyd being made captain – "10 players is just a gang"; a dressing-down in the dressing room from Kerry Packer, the man who made them wear pink pyjamas; and King Viv refusing a million pounds to play on a rebel tour of South Africa.

But surely the uprising had been fermenting for a long time under the colonial rule of the English, and as Mike Gatting and Co will recall only too well despite all the concussion, it was England who really bore the brunt, especially when the South African-born captain Tony Greig said he would make them grovel in 1976.

The military terminology returns as Richards says: "The English would rather lose a battleship than lose a Test match." It still makes you cringe to see Holding's fearful assault on brave old Brian Close at Old Trafford. Too close for comfort, even now.

By 1984 the English authorities and press thought the West Indies juggernaut had to be stopped by changing the rules. But they couldn't stop the sheer joy experienced in the Caribbean, the cultural revival that the team helped to achieve across the region and the players' ability to unite the islanders for the first time.

This is a terrific movie, even if no opposition players are interviewed and they don't bother to mention the two World Cups they won. The film was produced with the assistance of the UK Film Council and one of the Goldsmith family, so it's rather ironic that two failing English institutions – the disbanded cinema body and the upper classes – should bring to the screen a story about the decline of an empire and its institutions.

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