If you were asked to pick the winningest team in sports history, chances are you probably wouldn’t think to choose the 1980s West Indies cricket team. But that crack squad dominated the game for almost twenty years, terrorizing batsmen with their lightning-quick, highly dangerous fast bowling style and racking up victories with ease. The rise of West Indies cricket paralleled the rise of the region in general. Previously under the firm control of the British, one by one the various Caribbean islands gained their independence between the ‘60s and the ‘80s and the cricketers’ repeated victories tapped into a larger sense of national pride. That era is revisited in Stevan Riley’s new documentary, Fire in Babylon, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Fueled by interviews with the surviving players as well as the rhythms of local reggae artists, the movie proves that cricket isn’t always the refined, bloodless sport it’s often been depicted as. When the West Indies team took the field, people knew they were going to see some serious action.
Life + Times: How did the project come your way initially?
Stevan Riley: I had finished a boxing documentary called Blue Blood that played at Tribeca a few years ago, and I met a producer here that I ended up working with on Fire in Babylon. He told me that there were lots of fans of the West Indies cricket team in the UK and they wanted to get involved to make this film. I didn’t play cricket a lot as a kid, but I remember watching the West Indies team because they would terrorize English batsmen with their fast bowling. This was in the age before helmets and padding and other types of protection and it was legitimate for bowlers to aim at the heart, ribs, throat and heads. You can imagine that they could do some damage. My friends and I would watch the matches on TV and just wait for someone to get hospitalized.
L+T: Beyond their style of play, what hooked you into their story?
SR: Well, for starters, they are the most successful team in sports history. Barring one dubious defeat in 1979, they would have been undefeated for 20 years. As it is, they had a record 15-year undefeated streak. On top of that, you’ve got all other layers in terms of the social and political context of the ‘70s and ‘80s, whether its racism in England, apartheid in South Africa or civil strife in the West Indies. There was suddenly this kind of worldwide front for [racial] conflict of which the West Indies were a part. And that was Babylon in the Rastafarian sense.
L+T: Was it difficult to track down the various players from that team?
SR: Yeah, because they had all dispersed. Some were on different islands in the West Indies and others were in the UK. I spent five weeks in the West Indies and everything operates on a different clock out there. It was like ‘Well, we’ll see if we can fit you in.” But once I started talking to them, they were kind enough to let me chat for three or four hours. A lot of the players have actually gone on to become pundits and commentators.