Last night I was watching (again) the brilliant documentary Fire in Babylon, about the rise of the West Indies’ cricket team, in the 1970s and early 80s, to global domination. I was watching it with my thirteen-year-old, who was amazed to see batsmen facing first Lillee and Thomson and then the West Indies’ fearsome pace bowlers without any of the armour plating with which batsmen these days encase themselves when they trot out to face even the most routine medium-pacers.
It’s a great film, which leaves no doubt about the serious motives behind the West Indies players’ determination to prove themselves not only equal to, but better than, the other Test nations and most especially England, the ‘former masters’, as several of the players put it. (Bunny Wailer, with relish, describes West Indies’ trouncings of England as ‘like the slaves whipping the asses of the masters’.) It’s also a fabulous opportunity to catch glimpses of the team in its pomp – Michael Holding’s beautiful glide to the wicket, Viv Richards’ imperious thrashing of the ball into the boundary ropes, and nonchalant, unwavering stare back at the bowler who’s just tried to bounce him out.
But there are a couple of issues raised by the film that are genuinely disconcerting, in somewhat different ways. The first is simply the scale of the decline of West Indies as a Test-playing nation: from undisputed world champions over a period of fifteen years (a record Michael Holding points proudly to over the closing credits) to abject losers who seem barely able to find eleven players who look as though they want to be on the field. It’s a very sad state of affairs for cricket and has been for a long time, but it’s thrown into very sharp relief by this film, which shows exactly what was at stake in West Indies’ fight to get to the top – why it mattered so much that a team of black men could become, and remain, winners.
The second issue is one that I’m still struggling to get my head round: the invitation extended to the West Indies team by the apartheid regime in South Africa to go and play cricket there – and the fact that several of the players, including Colin Croft, accepted this invitation. Croft features, alongside Richards, Holding, Andy Roberts and Gordon Greenidge, as one of the main ‘talking heads’ in the film, and it came as a shock to me – having watched him speak of the team’s pride and the racism they had to overcome – to discover that he had taken the money and gone to South Africa. It’s quite painful to watch him justifying his decision to go (he attempts to equate it with going to Australia, along with the rest of the Test team, to play in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket), especially set alongside Richards’ and Holding’s vehement responses. Richards’s voice is menacingly quiet as he recalls the regime’s offer to him of the status of ‘honorary white’, and dismisses any idea that he could have accepted; but there are visible tears in his eyes as he recalls Desmond Tutu’s telling him how much Nelson Mandela, then still imprisoned, had appreciated the refusal of most of the West Indians to play in South Africa. Holding, for his part, simply says, ‘What is wrong with the colour of my skin, or my ethnicity? Why should I be an honorary anything other than what I am?’ Croft admits that, after the trip to South Africa, knowing the likely reception he would face at home, he didn’t go back to the West Indies, but went instead to Florida. He never played for West Indies again. It seems a sad end for one of a group of extraordinary cricketers, whose achievements surely stand for matters of great importance far beyond the game of cricket.