Robin Scott-Elliot: How Tony Greig tempted fate, and drew the fire and fury of the West Indies

View From The Sofa: Fire in Babylon, BBC 4
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When it comes to tempting fate nobody can better John Sedgwick. The American Civil War general, angered by his men taking cover from distant sniper fire, confidently assured them that the enemy sharpshooters "couldn't hit an elephant from that distance". Despite being noticeably smaller than an elephant, he was shot by a distant sniper within seconds.

Tony Greig did his best to give Sedgwick a run for his dollar and there were moments during what followed when his poor batsmen might have feared a lethal outcome. Greig's pronouncement that his England side would make West Indies "grovel" is sport's most famous suicide note, but watching Fire in Babylon was the first time I had actually seen him say it. There he sat in the sunshine at Hove, collar turned up on his white cricket shirt, pronouncing in his nasal South African drawl, in 1976, at the peak of the apartheid struggle in his home country, on the eve of playing against a team made up of black players drawn from nations that had only relatively recently won their own independence, one equipped with a battery of bowlers fast enough to impress even General Sedgwick, had he not been a) American and b) dead). "If they are down," said the England captain, "they grovel and I intend, with the help of a few others, to make them grovel."

That, suggested Gordon Greenidge, the great West Indies opener, "wasn't a clever thing to say". Whenever Greig appeared at the crease during the series, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Joel Garner bowled even quicker and, in the case of Roberts and Croft, nastier. It was Roberts who produced the line of the film, an enjoyable ramble around the rise of sport's greatest team. "I didn't go out to hit people," he said. There was a moment's silence before he spoke again. "It was just a lot of people got hit."

The storyline was varied; politics, racism, the growth of a team and the tale of some extraordinary batsmen – "Some said I had a little swagger," said Viv Richards, his voice as if he were gargling gravel followed by that curiously high-pitched giggle. But above all, this was about the brutal, compelling art of fast bowling. There is nothing like it in cricket because of one crucial element, fear. Here's Holding, the graceful exception to prove the brutal rule: "Once you have the capability of hurting someone with the ball, that person is not thinking about how to play the ball, he's thinking about self-preservation."

Clive Lloyd's team learnt that the painful way at the hands of Lillee and Thomson in Australia in 1975. Greenidge described the experience as terrifying and it led Lloyd, a masterful captain who wove together disparate elements from different countries, to scour the Caribbean for out-and-out fast bowlers. Instead of two, as Australia had, he came up with four. There was no respite for batsmen. No one in world cricket could cope, the quick men kept coming, and West Indies did not lose a series for 15 years.