Fire In Babylon
The sad thing about any struggle for equity and fairness is its permanence and immutability. One of the happiest things to behold in any walk of life is when something or someone stands out and asserts their dignity. And when that is done against all odds being on the wrong side of this deeply divided world with unbridgeable disparities, it creates history.
This is a similar story of triumph and a story that is most unlikely to be repeated. If at all there is something that I enjoy more than cricket, it is the wonder of West Indians playing it. And this is a story about them, my greatest sporting icons ever.
Show Notes – https://bit.ly/IWBTS01E05ShowNotes
Music Credits – https://bit.ly/IWBTS01E05MusicCredits
(c) Copyright 2020 MotorMouth Media Pvt Ltd
Fire in Babylon
Hello and welcome to another new episode of “I went back to” brought to you by Motormouth Podcasts. A show where we open a window to our past to let some light and air into our present. With the hope that they dispel some darkness and stoke some emotions. I am your host Kalyan happily perched on the ledge of this window and ever ready to jump in and out of it.
There are fewer sights more comforting than a game of test cricket unfold on a glorious English summer morning. This July when England played West Indies, what made it better was the sight of players from both sides kneeling in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And of course, the rousing message Michael Holding delivered later that day as part of his commentary assignment. The image of the man was a complete blur due to the misty eyes I had, but his voice struck, and that too with the clarity and punch of the fabled hook shot one of his eminent teammates from their playing days would have hit.
There are some things about us that no amount of evolution has ever managed to change. Isn’t it?
I am convinced that the wealthiest human on earth has got to be a stubborn optimist. There surely can’t be a rarer or a more precious commodity than optimism today. There is so much that seems to be going so irrevocably wrong. It seems like a world where no height of perversion is tall enough or no depth of depravity is low enough. A world where the bottom of the rock is actually forever the tip of the iceberg. All this fills you with so much of cynicism, distrust and hurt that it’s phenomenally hard to remain positive.
I mean, how sad must our world be when we must insist that some lives matter more than all lives. It’s like a perverse twist to the Orwellian idea, saying: all of us are unequal but some are more unequal than the others.
George Floyd’s killing earlier this year had caused me a lot of inner turmoil. It was a blow that shocked me into both silence and hysterics at the same time. I mean a man had met with his death under most brutal conditions and there was everything to suggest that it was essentially because of the colour of his skin.
One would’ve thought that this being the 21st century bigotry would be more subtle and disguised, at least in the enlightened West. But this had been in the face! Literally! And by the very man who was under oath to protect and enforce the law of the land and its principles of equality. And what was worse? Alongside all the rightful outrage there were also voices that said, “Oh! George had a history of crime and violence. Oh! George was no model of virtue.” In other words, George deserved to die. Another human of colour had perished and with no opportunity to bear himself out.
While listening to Mr. Holding, I recalled all those black heroes who had made a colossal impression on me and on this world. Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Wangari Maathai, May Ayim, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jimi Hendrix, Bob
Marley, Pele, Venus & Serena Williams, Chima Okerie, Michael Jordan and many many more. People who stood out in their fields, like defiant sprouts from barren soil. And whose acts were tough, perhaps impossible, acts to follow.
So, my trip backwards this time was in search of some redemption. I just had to go back to something to get a sense of balance and harmony. An attempt to calm myself, even if vicariously, to compensate for the grief and pain I felt.
And what better thing to placate me, I thought, than a documentary on my greatest black heroes ever. A documentary that talks about a sporting team which was perhaps divided in more ways than it was united. A common past steeped in oppression and racial abuse and an intense will to prove a point and assert their dignity was the only thing that brought a group of individual island nations together to form the West Indies Cricket Team. Easily one of the most dominant and compelling teams in sporting history when they were in their prime. Even if they aren’t or will never be what they were, their legacy will endure like mountains and oceans do. In a world where cricket will be forgotten, this team will still be spoken about.
While I do have my favourites in it, but for me, this team was the hero. The story of their rise and success is like a parable giving us valuable lessons in leadership, motivation and sportsmanship. The fire within them to be the best and the searing heat of it that their colonial masters eventually felt, constitutes The Fire in Babylon as the documentary is called.
Before this documentary, I only knew of Babylon as the ancient capital city of Babylonia along the banks of the Euphratus in present day Iraq. Eventually Babylon in its adjective form Babylonian became a symbol for anything that was affluent, extravagant and materialistic. But it was this documentary that taught me that Babylon also had a distinct connotation vis a vis racism. It was a derogatory term especially in the Rastafarian discourse, attributed to the imperialist western world. A world, that was perverse, corrupt and oppressive towards Blacks and other people of colour. For the uninitiated, Rastafarianism is an afro-centric socio religious movement that originated around the 1930s in the Caribbean islands, in Jamaica to be precise, and which believes that the Blacks will some day repatriate to their African homeland and regain their lost stature.
So, Babylon, or the oppressive West historically engaged in slave trade bringing millions of Africans across the Atlantic and subjecting them to unspeakable brutality. This went on for over 400 years practically debilitating the African continent, the effects of which are visible even to this day. But of course, it was the masters who were civilized and the slaves were the savages.
However, even after the abolition of slave trade in the early 19th century, the miseries of the black people were not quite over. They then became the subjects of their colonial masters and were relegated to a position of perpetual inferiority whether in their own land or wherever else they were condemned to live.
And for the people in the Caribbean, the game of cricket, beyond anything, was to become the epitome of freedom from Babylon. A place where they could assert their equality. A place
that’d rather be grey than being just black or white. On the other side of the break, the initial years and the trigger to attain ultimate greatness. (a logical break)
West Indies was the fourth nation to be accorded the test status in cricket in 1928 after England, Australia and South Africa. A good 4 years before India got it. Although nation is really a misnomer here since the West Indies is a multi-national team consisting of players from 15 different Caribbean territories all of which are different countries or dependencies.
But it wasn’t before the early 60s that West Indies had its first Black captain – Sir Frank Worrell, one of the celebrated 3 W’s (the other two being Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott). It was around the same time that these island nations were also fighting for their independence from their rulers. And as they gained their independence, they had broken economies and abused societies to rebuild. So, cricket wasn’t quite in focus or didn’t get the priority.
However, they were never pushovers in cricket. Even back then, the West Indies were a team to reckon with amongst the better teams in the world. I mean, with a beacon like Sir Garfield Sobers, any team in the universe would inevitably dazzle, wouldn’t it? And then the likes of Everton Weekes (who passed away recently) and Learie Constantine also added the heft of their remarkable talents to the team. Yet, the individual successes of these greats did not always translate into the team’s success and good results remained somewhat sporadic for them. And in due course, West Indian cricketers had earned the name of Calypso Cricketers – cricketers who were talented and entertaining but never quite had it in them to win
It is from this premise that Fire in Babylon takes off. And through stock footage and interviews with some of the West Indian greats, it plots this team’s rise and arrival to the very top of the game where they stayed longer than any known sporting team ever did. And all the while this documentary underscores the racial prejudices this team had to suffer especially at the hands of their former white rulers and how that remained the very basis of their passion to become the best.
In this narrative, we’ll be following a similar structure and chronology that the documentary follows. Which will also explain the bent towards their performance in Test Cricket more than in one-day cricket.
It was during the 1975-76 tour of Australia that the seeds of this passion were sown. The Australians were arguably the best side in test Cricket and West Indies had just won the World Cup earlier that year. Billed as a clash of the titans, this series proved to be the defining moment in West Indies Cricket. The team suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat in a 6 test match series at the hands of the Australians. The decimating Australian fire power of fast bowlers Dennis Lillie and Jeff Thomson literally drew the first, middle and last blood in the series leaving the West Indians badly bruised, both physically and mentally. Thomson and Lillie took 56 West Indian wickets between them in this series. They were quick, merciless and took the ‘gentle’ out of the gentleman’s game. Added to this loss was the abuse and humiliation the visitors faced from the Australian crowds. The crowds would be baying for blood and cries of
“Lille!! Kill!! would be heard from the stands. Racial slurs like “Hey Nigger! Go back to your trees!” were also very common. The atmosphere was laden with much more than just the spirit of a contest. It was blatantly racist. This disaster left the team very bitter, heavily fragmented and bickering amongst themselves. Michael Holding, in an interview, recalls being terribly devastated and in tears by the end of it all.
Reparations were in order. But they couldn’t be manic or knee-jerk. They had to be clinical. The team needed a calm leader who could steer them out of this. And fortunately for them he was already leading them and was their top scorer in the Australian series. Clive Lloyd, with his unflappable demeanour and that professorial look (thanks to those glasses), gathered the broken pieces and hearts and embarked on a mending mission.
Lloyd resolved that they will pay the world back in the Australian coin. He began cultivating fast bowlers who would match the fire and punch of Lillie and Thomson. In due course, he unleashed his men onto the world with a singular brief: become the terror that you felt in Australia but only show it, never tell. And thus, was born the legend of the West Indian cricket team that became the stuff of dreams and nightmares alike.
Enter the era of invincibility. (a logical break)
India, when they toured the West Indies in 1976 was to be the first team to face the brunt of Lloyd’s galvanized pace attack. In the fourth and final test match of the series, Lloyd went for the kill with a 4-pronged pace attack with ghosts of the Australian humiliation still looming large. On a murderously green pitch, the Indians were being belted and pounded in front of meek umpires and hysterically cheering crowds. Broken fingers, swollen faces, head injuries, it seemed more like a battlefield where the game of cricket was incidental. Captain Bishen Singh Bedi finally surrendered and declared in the second innings with half his men not having batted at all. This was partly out of protest and mostly out of an instinct to protect his players against further injuries. West Indies won this test match despite taking only 11 Indian wickets and the series 2-1.
While Indian cricket fans must endure the painful lows of the 4th test match, they also have the gratifying highs of the 3rd one. India’s record-breaking victory in it was a rare once-in-a generation victory. The grit and determination of the Indian side in this series is ideally the subject of a dedicated podcast.
Meanwhile coming back to our men from the Caribbean, this test series strengthened Lloyd’s conviction that he could win matches even with an all pace attack, a fact that remained the cornerstone of their invincibility in the years to come.
The West Indies were now to tour England in the summer of 76. They were a different side all pumped up and raring to go. And they had phenomenal crowd support too. Their oppressed brethren were seeking liberation in the victory of their team. And if at all the team lacked any
steam, it was duly offset by an extremely cavalier and vain remark made by the then English Captain, Tony Greig. He said, and I paraphrase, “I am not quite sure they are as good as they think they are. If they are down, they’d grovel, and I intend to make them grovel”. “Ouch”. Tony Greig must have taken his regret for this statement right to his grave. He had lit a match in a room full of gun powder, and actually thought he was being brave and not foolish.
Suffice it to say then, that England lost the 5 test match series 3-0. The West Indian ball had spoken and very forcefully at that. And their bat hadn’t been any less eloquent either. A single man scored a staggering 829 runs in this series even after he missed a match due to sickness. A man by the name Issac Vivian Alexander Richards – For me, the greatest ever batsman to have played the game. A man who acted casually but delivered profoundly. Apart from the nonchalance on his sleeve, a man who never wore any protective gear throughout his career not because he was reckless but because, I believe, the cricket ball could not inflict a greater wound on his body than what his mind and his sense of dignity had suffered.
For a brief period after the England series, the cream of the West Indian team was banned from playing for the West Indies as they deviated to play for a breakaway and unrecognized tournament, The World Series Cricket by Kerry Packer. This series offered financial dignity to the poorly paid West Indian cricketers, paid them commensurately to their talents and ability and above all, taught them to be thorough professionals and work on all aspects of their game like fitness, discipline, technique and so on.
Eventually, the West Indian cricket board was forced to reinstate these players to the national team owing to overwhelming public pressure. Which meant, their best had been brought back in the team and had only gotten better in the meanwhile.
And then came the tour to Australia in 1979. The payback tour where they played 3 test matches and with a 4-man pace attack in each of them. The 4 horsemen of apocalypse as they were called – Andy Hitman Roberts, Michael Whispering Death Holding, Joel Big Bird Garner and Colin Smiling Assassin Croft. The team reached great heights, both literally and figuratively, with these men. Australia lost the series 2-0.
Barring a Wesley Hall or a Charlie Griffith from the past, it was from the times of these 4 men that the West Indian pace attack became the stuff of eternal cricketing and sporting folklore. And Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Curtley Ambrose, Pat Patterson and Ian Bishop were the giants who seamlessly took this legacy ahead.
Mind you, it will be a monstrous mistake to think that these men only reveled in intimidation and brute force. They knew the pains of the hunted only too well even when they became the hunters. There was extraordinary gamesmanship in them. Who could forget Courtney Walsh’s gesture to not run Saleem Jaffer out for the 10th wicket in the 1987 World Cup, an act that cost the West Indies their place in the semi-finals for the first time in World Cup history? And most of all, these men were extraordinary bowlers. The 9 names I just took have close to 9000 FC wickets amongst them. Yeah, you heard that number right, 9000.
Towards the end of the documentary we see a reference to the 1984 tour of England where the WI achieved a feat no other team ever did before or after then – making a clean sweep.
Defeating England in England 5-0 in a 5 test match series, a defeat famously known as the Blackwash. Also, no mention of this tour is complete without talking about a one-day innings played by Viv Richards in the very first ODI.
West Indies batted first and scored 272 and Viv Richards got 189 of them with the next best score being 26. This remained the record for the highest ODI score for another 13 years until Saeed Anwar broke it against India in 1997. Today, this 189 would have been just another good innings. But 36 years ago, it was one hell of an anomaly given the cricketing ways of its times. And yet an innings one couldn’t deem entirely uncharacteristic of Viv Richards. It was never about him playing futuristic or anachronistic cricket. It was about him simply being out of reach for any of his peers. I mean, if he were to be actively playing today, he’d still be doing something unattainable by the best in the business.
In fact, not giving enough airtime to the achievements of the West Indies team in one-day cricket is a crying shame. But I will have to endure this injury to my conscience for want of time. The first 20 – 25 years of one-day international cricket is, in essence, the story of triumph and superiority of the West Indies over everyone else in that form of the game.
I have been a crazy follower of the WI team all my life to the extent that I would root for them even when they played India. My own first memories of watching this team play was when most of the seniors had retired or were on the verge of it. Whatever I have seen of them in their prime is from old videos or in poignant write-ups or from the moving descriptions of their exploits by eldersin the family and friends’ circles. What I got to watch, though, and that too to my utter fulfillment was Brian Lara in action and of course Bishop, Walsh and Ambrose amongst the bowlers. And I can’t thank my stars enough for that. Someone like a Brian Lara, much like his illustrious senior, is a wonder who comes once in a long while.
Also doing an entire episode on West Indies cricket and not speaking about Brian Lara is a misdeed as indefensible as doing an episode on murder mysteries and not mentioning Agatha Christie in it. And I am shamefully guilty of both crimes. I hope to be able to compensate for this in future.
If you haven’t watched the documentary, I can never recommend it enough. I could watch it repeatedly just to see that spunk in Viv Richards’ eyes each time he appears. Watch it. Watch it if you are a lover of sport, watch it if you are deeply disturbed by a divided world, watch it to get hope in these dark times. It may be about a team that represents a few dots on the map or about a game barely a handful of nations play but it is a story that deserves to be known to every thinking mind of this world.
From the very beginning, I was never the one to cheer for the habitual winner. I always found the legitimate triumph of the underdog far more gratifying. So, it still baffles me just when and how I became such a big fan of the WI cricket team.
The truth is that even if they were winning, they were still the underdogs. Their heroism or brilliance could still not entirely change the sad order of our world where a George Floyd or a Manisha Valmiki closer home still literally take it lying down. But yes, they did stand out both
as an aberration and an inspiration for the way they made the cricket field their level playing field.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for tuning in and hearing me rant. You may follow us on Twitter and Instagram under the handles @IWentBackTo and @MotormouthPods to get regular updates on new episodes and other shows. I will be back once again with another thing that I went back to. Till then in the words of Bob Marley, don’t gain the world and lose your soul, for wisdom is better than silver or gold. Stumps!
Links & References:
- Fire in Babylon: The Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_5yj4DJ9nc
- Viv Richards: King of Cricket: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmP4S-cmR9k
- Michael Holding Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUOeeGDUdD8
IWBTS01E05 – Fire In Babylon
Theme music – Freestylah by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License
Incidental and Additonal Music
Music by Jimmy Free @ www.jimmyfree.club
- Static Attack
- Reggae Sun
- Symphony of Archers
- Breaking Free From A Heartbreak
- Capitol Hill by R Russell
- Big Ship by C Marlo A Baker
- Slow Motion Crash by B Smith
- Sentimental Reason by J Williams
- Steady Climb by J Geer-J Hunter-J Slott
- The Eternal Army by I Eshkari – S McLaughlin
- Solemn March by A Blumenthal
- Evil Deeds by L Blanca
- Mean Rolling Bass by S Everitt
- The Smokestacks by I Eshkari – S McLaughlin
- The Machinist – Compoes by One Man Symphony (onemansymphony.bandcamp.com)
- Musik An Welt Aus (instrumental) by Sascha Ende
- Blockbuster Atmosphere 9 (Sadness) by Sascha Ende
- SFXs from sfxcellar.accusonus.com
- News Caster’s and Michael Holding’s commentary and speech courtesy – SkyNews