When West Indies ruled the world
By Oliver Brett
West Indies were once known as the “calypso cricketers”. It was a slightly patronising description which reflected the fact that while, at their best, they could provide rich entertainment, all too often they went home a beaten side.
Then something happened. They became good, very good indeed as the authoritative captaincy of Clive Lloyd turned them into a brilliant match-winning machine. They had the game’s most dominant batsman, Viv Richards, and the most fearsome fast bowlers in the world.
The great era of Caribbean cricket, which began with their success in the inaugural World Cup of 1975 and continued into the early 1990s, is viewed with a greater sense of nostalgia now than ever before in light of the prolonged demise the game has endured in the Caribbean since then.
And so it is that when watching Stevan Riley’s new film Fire in Babylon, which goes on general UK release on Friday, you cannot help but feel those glory days are lost in time, evoking a brand of cricket West Indies will never replicate.
Riley employs three narrative methods. Firstly, of course, he uses splendid footage of selected series in Australia and England, brought to life vividly on the big screen (it comes as a real treat if you have grown used to the pixellated, cramped confines of youtube for such memories).
The second story-telling device comes in the form of present-day interviews with the legendary West Indies players. Michael Holding, a professional pundit now, is wonderfully eloquent. Andy Roberts, his fellow former fast bowler, also provides intelligent insight. And you only have to look at Richards’ eyes - still burning with the passion that seems to have escaped the current generation of West Indian cricketers - to feel the emotion of the time, and the drama of what became a crusade against the established powers.
Holding describes an early setback by revealing how he sat down by the wicket and wept in despair, out of sheer disbelief that “anyone could play the game of cricket this hard”. But they responded, and how. For Richards “my bat was my sword”.
The third narrative format is what takes this film firmly away from the realm of those prosaically efficient videos produced by the satellite sports channels.
Riley’s added spice comes through the contributions of non-cricketers. There are interviews with Rastafarians - some famous like Bunny Wailer, others less so - lyrically opining about the wonder of Richards and Gordon Greenidge in their prime, or the poetic pace of the fast bowlers.
And, most surprisingly of all, there are some enchanting musical interludes. Various bands who one suspects would be familiar only to older Caribbean viewers are filmed performing gentle cricketing ballads. These mostly take place outdoors against carefully constructed backdrops.
Triumph through adversity is the film’s principal theme. The players on the 1975-76 tour of Australia, where the story begins, recall the racism they suffered from the fans, and the pummelling they received on the pitch from the Australian fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
West Indies were World Cup holders at the time, but the film pitches them as talented but fundamentally naive underdogs up against a ferocious, streetwise Australian side who handed out a no-nonsense 5-1 beating.
The 1976 tour of England that followed was the breakthrough series. A home side led by Tony Greig was swept aside 3-0 with Holding and Roberts in full cry, despite a sweltering summer resulting in wickets that should have helped the batsmen.
From then on, it’s pretty much a tale of unbridled success, taking in the 1979-80 series in Australia where revenge was sweetly obtained with a side now incorporating the likes of Desmond Haynes, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, and the famous “blackwash” tour of England in 1984, by which time the terraces at grounds like The Oval were overspilling with West Indian fans, obtains its rightful place too.
Riley is no cricket buff, and does not become buried in the complexity of individual matches and the kind of detail that would appeal only to anoraks, rather than the broader audience the film is hoping to capture. But that is not to say that there is an over-simplification of broader issues.
For example, appalled by the pocket-money salaries dished out by the West Indies Cricket Board, we see the players accept the invitation from media magnate Kerry Packer to play in his World Series in the late 1970s. These are the renegade matches in Australia where coloured clothing was worn for the first time - look out for some fetching all-pink kits.
The cricket also sits alongside a wider political background. The Caribbean itself faced something of an identity crisis as it struggled to deal with a serious economic slump once the post-independence honeymoon had run its course.
Meanwhile, racial tension was an unwelcome undercurrent in England in the early 1980s. No wonder those fans at The Oval, so close to some of the worst race riots in Brixton, responded so readily to the all-conquering efforts of the 1984 team.
The very title of the film puts further focus on race issues. Babylon’s conquest of Jerusalem in antiquity left the Jews without a home, and is used in Rastafarian culture as a metaphor for what happened to Africans torn from their homeland by the slave trade.
Thus, Fire in Babylon inevitably reflects on how Richards famously turned down blank cheques, twice, to play on rebel tours of South Africa, in the early 1980s.
Most of the star names also steered well clear, but others did not and thus implicitly were seen to support the apartheid government.
One of the most poignant interviews comes when fast bowler Croft explains his decision to accept the South African rand. He starts off on the defensive, before appearing more rueful and apologetic later on.
On immediate reflection, the film appears to lack a neutral voice. There are no present-day interviews with any of the West Indies’ adversaries of the time, for example.
But perhaps Riley’s judgement is correct. This is not intended to be a dispassionate observation of cricket as played by the West Indians 30-odd years ago; it is about how it was in their own eyes.
Fire in Babylon is a joyous experience for a cricket fan, and I see no reason why it cannot be equally enjoyed by someone with a limited appreciation of the noble old game. Go and see it while you can. But before you do, a quick warning - you might never want to watch an Indian Premier League game again. – [BBC]


Pundits’ predictions for Wimbledon

The 2011 Wimbledon Championships look set to be one of the most fiercely competitive tournaments for years.
The men’s game is blessed with the most gifted bunch of players for a generation with Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and home favourite Andy Murray fighting it out at the top of the rankings.
In the women’s event, the field is wide open and a host of players have high hopes of victory given that the Williams’ sisters are coming into the tournament short of match practice.
Here a selection of legendary players, commentators and experts tell BBC Sport who they think is set for glory in SW19 this year.
SUE BARKER, BBC Sport presenter
You could stick a pin in any of the top four but Rafael Nadal is the defending champion and is hitting the ball so well at the moment. He is such a formidable match player and winning the French Open will have really boosted his confidence.
I am backing Maria Sharapova as she is the one person who is not afraid of the Williams sisters. Time might have beaten Venus and Serena in their battle to be fully fit but if Serena makes it into the second week I might have to change my choice of winner.
JOHN MCENROE, three-time Wimbledon winner
You can make an argument for any one of the world’s top four, but Roger Federer’s play at the French Open inspired me to choose him. His game is suited to this surface and his willingness to take more chances on it will pay off. It’s hard to pick from anyone outside one of the world’s top four. This is a darn good time for the men’s game.
BJORN BORG, five-time Wimbledon winner
Murray, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer ; These four guys right now all playing great tennis. We can expect a special Wimbledon that has not happened for a few years. It is tough because I like all four guys and cannot see anyone win except for (one of) these four. If you say ‘pick someone,’ I pick Roger Federer because he played so well on the clay in Paris and now he is coming to his favourite surface
In the women’s singles I have to go with Maria Sharapova. She played very well on the clay which is not her favourite surface.
TIM HENMAN, four-time Wimbledon semi-finalist
Roger Federer for me. It was the best I had seen him play at Roland Garros and if he brings that clay form to grass he has a good a chance as anyone.
Serena Williams has a superb grass court pedigree and if she survives her first couple of rounds she will go from strength-to-strength.
LINDSAY DAVENPORT, 1999 Wimbledon champion
I fancy Roger Federer to claim his seventh title here. His game really came back together on his least favourite surface in Paris and he looks back on form.
Maria Sharapova has won Wimbledon before and she really impressed at the French Open despite her not being a fan of clay.
ANDREW CASTLE, BBC tennis commentator
It makes me laugh that people don’t have Rafael Nadal as favourite. The last time he lost here was in 2007. I saw him in practice earlier in the week and it was ridiculous how well he was hitting the ball.
Every time Serena Williams walks on court she is already three love up. If the enthusiasm is there that will certainly make up for her lack of fitness.
VIRGINIA WADE, 1977 Wimbledon champion
If Rafael Nadal finds his way through a tough half of the draw I expect him to retain his title. He is such a winner.
Maria Sharapova is in fantastic form and has the experience of winning Wimbledon before.

GREG RUSEDSKI, former world number four
The top four seeds will make the semis but I’m going with Rafael Nadal. He last lost at Wimbledon four years ago and is the mentally strongest player on the planet. He impressed me at Queen’s and his coach said that this has been his best ever transition from clay to grass.
The women’s is wide open, the pundits’ tip this year seems to be Sharapova but it would surprise no one if Serena Williams wins, but the question is, is she healthy enough?
TRACY AUSTIN, two-time US Open winner
Roger Federer played so well in Paris and he is now on a surface favourable to his game so I’m picking him. It’s a really tough ask to pick one from the top four as we are so lucky at the moment to have four players playing at the top of their game.
There are a few question marks over who is going to be the women’s champion this year and I think it will be a lot easier after the first week to get an impression. Venus and Serena are more vulnerable in the first week as they regain their fitness and match practice. I make Maria Sharapova a slim favourite. She played really well against Serena last year and she is playing 50% better than that now and loves this surface.
SAM SMITH, former WTA player
I think Roger Federer will win as he is hitting his serve and forehand unbelievably well at the moment.
Petra Kvitova is a fantastic grass court player and I think she is the best server in the women’s game. She reached the semis here last year and I think she could go one step further this year.
JO DURIE, former Great Britain number one
I think Roger Federer will win as he seems the most determined to win and show he is not a spent force.
I cannot pick a winner from the women’s at all, it is so difficult. Maria Sharapova is in great form, but the Williams sisters are so tough to beat. I really can’t pick a winner but I would lean towards Serena Williams as she is such a ferocious competitor. – [BBC]


Test series against Sri Lanka

England takes a lot of positives

By Jonathan Agnew
England’s three-Test series against Sri Lanka may have been blighted by rain but there were plenty of positives for Andrew Strauss’s men, as well as one or two causes for concern ahead of the visit of top-ranked India later in the summer.
Andrew Strauss had a poor series against the Sri Lankans but he has time to get some form. He will have a bit of a break and then get out there and get some runs.
He will be facing a left-arm seamer of high quality in Zaheer Khan and I’m sure he will be practising hard in the nets and with bowling machines to improve his technique against that type of bowling.
There’s no crisis with Strauss but it’s never a healthy situation for a team to be in when your captain is struggling for runs. The whole team operates much better when the captain is in form.
Alastair Cook goes from strength to strength and it is fitting that he will go into the India series on the verge of a record-equalling seventh consecutive 50.
The transformation in his form is all down to footwork. When he comes down the pitch at the ball with his right foot coming forward he is a wonderful player. When he sticks that foot across the stumps, as he was doing this time last year, he is all over the place.
He recognised that he could have been more positive than he was at Lord’s and you saw that at the Rose Bowl when he played forcefully and got out to a shot that he wouldn’t normally have played. To get to number one, the batsmen are going to have to be able to free themselves up.
Meanwhile, Ian Bell is just made for number five. He plays at a lovely speed and has batsmen around him now. Eoin Morgan is slightly more unconventional so he can operate well with the tail-enders, whereas Bell can just go in at number five and bat.
Aesthetically, he is the prettiest player England has had for a long time. I always loved Michael Vaughan’s cover drive but I think Bell’s is every bit as good.
As a person he is much more comfortable with himself. He used to fret and worry, but he is much more relaxed now. He is married now, and when you get some stability in your life, it doesn’t matter what you do, you just do it better, and in his case he is batting very well.
It was a big series for Kevin Pietersen and he got two good scores. But what was most important was the way that he played in that 85 at the Rose Bowl. It is a shame that he got out before his century, but he will feel much more confident about things and people will leave him alone a bit now.
He is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea but I don’t think we need to worry too much about his relationship with Coach Andy Flower. I don’t think there was quite the ill-feeling surrounding Pietersen’s departure from the World Cup that we were led to believe.
Morgan has entirely justified the decision to select him ahead of Ravi Bopara, and he worked hard to fill Paul Collingwood’s shoes in the field. I like the way he played at the Rose Bowl - it was a Morgan Test innings rather than a Morgan one-day innings. It was very clinical and he just looks a really good player.
I remember talking to some of the Irish players about him and they were amazed that anyone had any doubts about whether he could make the step up to Test cricket. I think we have now seen a couple of examples of why he is good enough.
I think Stuart Broad Has probably done just about enough to keep his place, but he does need to get some wickets under his belt.
He will play in the Twenty20 game and the one-dayers but I would also love to see him get a county game in before the first Test.
He looked transformed when he got the Mahela Jayawardene wicket on Sunday evening but then he didn’t bowl very well again on Monday.
He needs to go out and get a five-wicket haul in county cricket and just relax a bit, because if he doesn’t there are some serious contenders queuing up to take his place, with Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan chief among them.
Chris Tremlett and James Anderson provide such good variety and are emerging as one of the best new ball partnerships around.
Tremlett is someone who no batsman in the world would enjoy facing and he has already softened up India last time they were here. They know all about him and they won’t relish facing him again.
James Anderson just needs that little bit of breeze to swing the ball - they are an ideal opening combination.
England still misses having a fifth bowler. They can chuck the ball to Jonathan Trott all they like but he is a sixth bowler at best. They do miss Collingwood just to come in and add a little spell of cutters or seamers.
The selectors seem absolutely fixated on playing four bowlers, but if India rattles up a lot of runs in that first Test, they will be under pressure to look at that strategy.
To get to number one you must be positive and flexible, and until England do both of those things they will remain short of that ultimate goal. – [BBC]