ANALYSIS : The Fire that doesn’t glow — Ajaz Ashraf
Their fiery fast bowlers were symbols of aggression, matching hurt with hurt, becoming a trope for subaltern protest against the domination of whites
Before the dimming of lights, I quickly counted the number of people in the theatre screening the cricket documentary, Fire in Babylon. There were eight of us, like so many teeth in a gnarled mouth time had ravaged. The scene was even more dismal in another part of Delhi: a friend was asked to wait at the ticket counter for at least another seven people to gather. An audience of eight, it seems, is the bare minimum a multiplex requires to show a film. Rows upon rows of empty seats seemed to taunt film critics who had been lavish in their praise of Fire in Babylon, hailing its director, Stevan Riley, for bringing to us, two decades later, the story of black cricketers flamboyantly ostracising the ghost of colonialism from the Caribbean.
As Fire in Babylon began to unspool on the screen and hip-shaking Calypso music echoed in the theatre, as legendary West Indian cricketers — from Viv Richards to Michael Holding to Andy Roberts to Gordon Greenidge — explained the political significance of the West Indian domination of international cricket for over two decades, beginning 1976, disappointment hung heavy in the theatre. Two of the eight walked out at the interval, never to return. The remaining six sullenly shuffled in the lobby or bought popcorn at the counter, still believing Riley was bound to rekindle our memory through exquisite footage depicting the magic of West Indies cricket. We were betrayed, just as the West Indian fans were at the failure of their team to overhaul the paltry 183 runs India had painstakingly scored in the World Cup final of June 25, 1983.
None of us six doubted Riley’s proposition: that cricket was a political tool through which the people of the Caribbean islands overcame the feeling of inferiority their colonial experience spawned. Their fiery fast bowlers were symbols of aggression, matching hurt with hurt, becoming a trope for subaltern protest against the domination of whites; their dashing batsmen conveying to the world that their skills were no less than their erstwhile masters; and the team’s triumphs inspiring a rejuvenation of Caribbean culture, particularly among those residing in the UK. Nor were we sceptical of the West Indies’ unquestionable supremacy fueling and fanning the assertion of Black Power around the world, in the process becoming a riposte to the silent supporters of the then apartheid regime of South Africa.
Yet for all or most of us living outside the string of island nations melded into an entity called the West Indies, a reality that does not exist outside the cricket field, Fire in Babylon ironically appears as anti-memory. No doubt, the past is always remembered in multiple ways; it is also true that the past, like the present, is dynamic, constantly changing and acquiring new meanings as individuals attempt to understand it anew in their own time. It would therefore be erroneous to declare as false Riley’s contention that the politics of racism, of which the West Indies-Australia series of 1975-76 was an eloquent symbol, inculcated in the Caribbean players the desire to rise, Sphinx-like, from the ashes to achieve equality with the predominantly white nations on the cricket field. You cannot question Riley because the evidence he marshals includes impressive testimonies from West Indies greats who played during that era.
But really, isn’t Riley guilty of exaggeration? Couldn’t it be that the stupendous performance of the West Indies cricket team and its consequent salutary impact on its people have persuaded Riley, as also the players, to read meanings which did not exist as overtly in the past as they do in his film? National and racial pride can inspire stellar performances now and then, but to vanquish all the teams in the world for nearly 20 years requires both gifted players and an inexhaustible pool of talent. Can nationalism inspire, say, Bangladesh to become overnight the conquerors of the cricket world? I think not. The rise of the West Indies as a cricketing power was linked to the emergence of exceptional players who, no doubt, through their performances taught the Caribbean people to take pride in their own selves.
It is not that we in the subcontinent are oblivious to the history of colonialism and the politics of sports. In childhood, we were weaned on textbooks extolling the indomitable spirit of leaders who challenged the might of the British Empire. At our tender age, we were taught about the inherent illegitimacy of British rule, its callous policies towards those who were subjugated, and the virtues of subscribing to the principle of equality. We, too, knew the British had a skin colour different from ours.
It was during our school days the ‘Calypso team’ began their climb to the pinnacle. Yet we understood the significance of white cricketers grovelling before the West Indians even though we did not call it politics. Indeed, politics was tucked between the lines in the sports pages, which were mostly what we read in the national dailies. We were introduced to the Israel-Palestine conflict through the massacre in Munich in 1972; we were told why Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali; we read about the political symbolism of Bobby Fischer trumping Boris Spassky in chess and why almost all African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympics in 1975. It was during these years the West Indies discovered their ferocious bowlers, their audacious batsmen and their world-beating ways. How could we not have grasped the meaning of their astonishing achievements?
We turned to Fire in Babylon to relish the exciting style of West Indies cricketers whose feat acquired a compelling political symbolism, but precisely in that order. We wished to relive those memorable clips etched in our minds not because we had necessarily seen them play on TV or the ground, but because of listening to ball-by-ball commentary or reading reports in the newspapers. The episodic YouTube clips cannot be a substitute for enjoying them in a context, in the darkness of a theatre. Riley’s obsession with the politics of anti-colonialism has him sacrifice cricket footage for the statements of West Indian greats who, beyond a point, echo each other with numbing monotony. All you get to watch are a few strokes from Richards, Greenidge, Lloyd, and a few bouncers Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Andy Roberts hurled to fell their rivals.
This is particularly disappointing for those of us who were in school in 1974-75, when the West Indies came touring India. It was in this thrilling series that the destructive Richards and Greenidge made their Test debuts, and the classy but callow fast bowler Andy Roberts had been just a few months old in the Test arena; skipper Clive Lloyd walloped us brutally. They were to soon constitute the nucleus of the team that was to become a cricketing superpower. Each of the four acquired a stature in our imagination reserved for folk heroes, forever transcending the line dividing nations and races.
The poet Yeats wrote, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Indeed, how can we fathom Black Power and Pride without knowing the kind of cricket West Indies played? It is for this reason Fire in Babylon squanders both the novelty of its message and the romance of cricket.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at email@example.com