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West Indian cricketers of Lloyd's era were determined to show that they too belonged on the world stage
"Who is this film for?" As obvious as the question was, it was not, perhaps, quite obvious enough. Why else would it have to be asked twice?
Hinting as it does at self-destruction, Fire in Babylon is the somewhat deceptive title of Stevan Riley's terrific documentary about the West Indies teams that, between the first day of the eighties and May 3, 1995, ruled cricket with an enlightened despotism unmatched, arguably, by any sporting team of any persuasion, in any era. Sports Illustrated, as likely to run an article on cricket as publish a Russian recipe for burgers, bracketed them with the San Francisco 49ers and Liverpool FC as the Team of the Eighties; imagine what accolades might have been bestowed had the editors been able to tell their byes from their leg-byes.
Nor might it seem altogether promising that the director of Fire in Babylon is a pasty-faced Oxford University graduate who studied Chinese, dallied with advertising, shot his first documentary about the underground music scene in war-torn Sarajevo, and turned his second, about a quintet of ambitious Oxford boxers, into a comedy. Fear not. Riley offers us a full x-ray of sporting greatness: the historical and contemporary context, the driving force and the mindset, the soaring talents and the staggering feats. Anyone with the vaguest interest in sport should see it, but none more urgently than the players whose misfortune it has been to follow in those colossal footsteps.
"It's not my gig and I'm not a diehard cricket fan," Riley admitted with disarming and refreshing candour during the early stages of filming, "but if I wasn't inspired by it, I wouldn't do it. I want to look at the civil rights movement, and emancipation, the ancillary stories, and find the universal themes beyond the sport itself." The proof that he has succeeded admirably could be found at the Leicester Square premiere last week: in the applause that rang out from the multi-racial mid-afternoon house and in the ensuing q&a, when every question fired at Riley was prefaced by a heartfelt expression of appreciation or even gratitude. Somewhat pointedly, two members of the audience wondered whether the West Indies board intended to show the film to the current trans-island representatives. Sticking steadfastly to his seat on the fence, Riley said the board had requested a copy, but felt unable to elaborate.
Much if not quite all of Caribbean life is here. The talking heads, naturally and fittingly, are led by Clive, Viv and Mikey, but the storytellers/celebrants also include Bunny Wailer, Lord Short Shirt and other musical figures, their reflections nestling cheek-by-jowl with long-unseen action from World Series Cricket and Tests in the Caribbean, all set to the reggae pulse of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Gregory Isaacs. The most bracing aspect is the frankness with which the players, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge and Colin Croft in particular, describe the motivation of the black man in a post-colonial world.
Time and again, the word "calypso" is uttered, almost spat out, with understandably bitter contempt. Wielded against them as it was, as a dismissive shorthand for a state of mind in which aimless, harmless fun took precedence over the serious business of winning, Lord Kitchener's fabled homage to "those little pals o' mine/Ramadhin and Valentine" held scant appeal for the more militant generation that followed.
While researching a biography of Desmond Haynes, I asked Clive Lloyd to pinpoint the turning of the tide. The presence on his dressing table of Eric Williams' Inward Hunger - The Education of a Prime Minister hinted at the measured nature of the response. "In my first Test against England in 1968, Jeff Jones called Wes Hall a 'black bastard' or something," Lloyd said. "Wes got uptight at first, then realised he shouldn't let it get to him. You mustn't let these guys get through to you. The minute they upset you they've done their job, because you're going to give away your hand. You're going to want to hit that ball so hard you're going to hit it too hard, so you're not going to time it. The best thing is to stay there and grind those fielders into the dust. That was the West Indies of old - calypso, Carry on Flamboyant, not putting a lot of thought into your cricket. That's how they used to get us out years ago - probably call out some racist remarks and then you get uptight and give your hand away. "After that 1975-76 trip to Australia, we began to change, to get it together. People think it's payback time but that's just so stupid. It's not a matter of paying back. People don't understand the importance of cricket in the West Indies. We were showing people. We were showing the world that we can be just as good as anyone else. That's all. It's a quiet demonstration, if you like."
Helpfully, the first tour after that 5-1 drubbing in Australia saw the England captain engage tongue before brain. "When Tony Greig said they'd make us grovel, I don't know if he understood the meaning of the word," reckoned Lloyd, "but here you had a white South African telling you he was going to make you grovel, and the sort of pride that is in players today made people just go out there and make him eat his words." Fire in Babylon, which concludes with a scroll through the unparalleled run of 29 Test series strung together by Lloyd and Richards' sides, is the tale of how those words, and others of a similar hue, were force-fed to a succession of impotent opposition camps by men for whom collective pride, regional and racial, was everything.
NOW, 35 YEARS LATER, West Indies are preparing to tour Sri Lanka, solidarity dented by the refusal of Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard to sign their central contracts. At face value at least, the commitment to the regional cause - one demanded, lest we forget, of no other set of players - is less than complete. Riley acknowledges that times, once again, have changed. "This film," he has asserted, "is about a very specific generation - the generation that overlapped the era of independence. Suddenly, you had this group of youngsters who want to make a firm statement that they'd broken with their colonial past and wanted to put the West Indies on the map. This surge of ambition was, in many ways, peculiar to that generation."
Which is why, 15 years after the empire was finally brought down by Steve Waugh's grimly devoted double-hundred in Jamaica, the ambition is less apparent, the motives so readily questioned. "We need to recognise that the nationalist passions of an earlier time have been significantly weakened and cannot be rekindled by patriotic speeches so long as the actions of the state on a daily basis question its own relevance." Those words were written for The New Ball, a decade ago, by Professor Hilary Beckles, who has articulated the attitudes of the post-Richards generation as ably as CLR James promoted the case for Frank Worrell's ascent to the West Indies captaincy half a century ago. Now, with consistent form a tiny, shrinking image in the rear-view mirror, finances at a near-subterranean ebb, and relations between players and board still light years from uniformly cordial, Beckles' sentiments ring truer than ever.
As do more recent ones conveyed by the world's best-known calypsonian, David Rudder, composer of "Rally 'Round the West Indies", the unifying anthem for a fractured region. To Rudder, attested Joy AI Mahabir in an academic paper entitled "Rhythm and Class Struggle: The Calypsoes of David Rudder", calypso is less about the joy of music than using rhythm "as an ideological language that can be used to engage in class struggle by conveying progressive ideas and inspiring progressive actions". Interviewed last year by Gary Steckles of the Toronto Star, Rudder alighted on the cause, as he sees it, of the cricketers' precipitous decline: "Well, we didn't plan ahead, we took our blessings for granted, the world changed around us, and the things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed."
Yet for all the eyebrows it raised, the left-field appointment as captain of Darren Sammy has prompted the needle on the optimistometer to flicker to life. It is all too easy to be seduced by the latest well-meaning call to arms by the latest new West Indies captain, wholly unprepared as he invariably is to withstand the full blast of the heat in that particular kitchen, but here, we can safely assume, is no Chris "I'm Not Bovvered" Gayle. Here, it seems, is someone not only aware of that heritage but unintimidated by it. As he put it with some eloquence the other day, "I am taking on a mountain that carries so much legacy, and I will also remind the guys of the great legacy that we carry." The immediate priority, nevertheless, is to "bring back the joy". There are worse places to start.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton
When John Howard sat down to write his memoirs he could have focused on his achievements, given generous acknowledgement to his colleagues, conceded a few failures - including the loss of the 2007 election - and made some observations on the long-term policy challenges for the nation.
It would have been the book of an elder statesman. He could have shown a spirit of generosity. And it would have enhanced his reputation. But it is not the nature of the man.
Howard wants to claim all the achievements of the Coalition government and does not intend to share the glory. He will not take responsibility for the defeat of the government in November 2007 or losing the seat of Bennelong where he had been the incumbent for 34 years. He will not take responsibility for what the whole of Australia knows - that he stayed too long.
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
The title of his book is designed to hide the obvious truth. This Lazarus is not rising. This Lazarus was terminated by the voters of Bennelong in 2007.
How Howard was going to lead his party to victory when he could not hold his own seat is a question of great mystery.
Now for the first time he "reveals" he intended to stand down as Liberal leader in December 2006 but was prevented from doing so - mainly by me, but also by his colleagues and then by Kevin Rudd and lastly by his own family.
So if you want to know who caused all this catastrophe it is Peter Costello. John Howard was responsible for everything except his own retirement, which was all the fault of . . . well, you know the story by now.
He couldn't go, he says, in July 2006 because I pushed him too hard; he would look as if he was running from me. He couldn't go in December 2006 because Kevin Rudd was elected Labor leader and he would look as if he was running from Rudd.
He couldn't go when his cabinet advised him to leave in September 2007 because, according to his family, it would look as if he was running from the voters.
George Bush described him as a man of steel. He sent troops into combat. But he couldn't carry out his planned retirement because he might have received a few taunts from his enemies?
He would have received a lot more plaudits from his real friends. Or perhaps he never did intend to stand down.
There is not a skerrick of objective evidence to support his supposed retirement plan. He told no one. He tells us that if he had told anyone he might have become a lame duck because people might have thought he was going when he really wanted them to think he was staying.
So silly us for believing what he wanted us to think.
Another reason that he told no one might have been because he wanted to keep all his options and didn't want anyone to hold him to a departure just in case the polls picked up and he could get another term.
He had been flirting with plans to leave on and off over a long time. In 1994 he gave a solemn, witnessed undertaking he would only serve one term. In 2000 he speculated on radio that he would leave on his 64th birthday. Two months before the November poll in 2007, he asked the cabinet to tell him whether he should go. And it did. But he rejected that advice. He loved the job and all that came with it. He had done nothing except politics all his adult life, and at his age there was little prospect of another career.
The honest truth is that when the time came he would never have been able to let go - not voluntarily. The only way he was going to leave was when the voters took him out, which the people of Bennelong did in 2007. It was a tragic miscalculation.
In years to come, it will be a Trivial Pursuit question to name the two prime ministers who lost their own seats. The other won his seat back. It took another John - John Alexander - to win back Bennelong for the Liberals.
In any political career there are failures. You don't make them go away by denying them. An honest acknowledgement allows you to focus on the successes. I have written of Howard's many achievements in my book - there were four election victories for starters. But the worst thing about blaming others for your failures is that it invites people to re-evaluate a whole lot of other things as well.
During the difficult period when I was attempting to implement the GST, a highly confidential memo written by the then-president of the Liberal Party, Shane Stone, mysteriously leaked out of the Howard office. Howard never managed to find out how it happened.
The essence of Stone's complaint was that the government was seen as ''mean and tricky''. The charge was principally directed at me. But as the years wore on the description was more frequently levelled at Howard. On the night of the 1998 election, having survived by a whisker, Howard said he would commit himself ''very genuinely to the case of true reconciliation''.
When there was a genuine spirit of goodwill about Aboriginal reconciliation in 2000 it would not have hurt to embrace it and walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It didn't mean you agreed with every demand every person walking that day wanted to make. It would have shown a generosity of spirit.
Now that he has retired, it would not take much to show some generosity about the achievements of colleagues who worked tirelessly over a decade for the government. A true leader can rejoice in the success of those around him. He does not need to demean their achievements and blame them for his own miscalculation.
And all these tricky gymnastics about whether he was or wasn't going to go. When is a promise not a promise? When is a deal not a deal? It was all just a distraction from what I belatedly realised: John Howard was never going to stand aside for anyone. He never had and he never would.
This might have been the right thing, according to his family. But that was not the point. The point was whether he did the right thing by those MPs who would go on to lose their seats in the 2007 election. Some of them have never had a job since. And more, the point is whether he did the best thing for the Liberal Party and the best thing for the country?
If you happen to believe, as I do, that we have had a bad government for the past three years, you realise how important it was for the Coalition, in 2007, to do everything it could to renew itself and extend its term in government.
The failure to do so was not in the interest of the nation or its people. I cannot take the credit for that. The principal credit for that failure must go to the person who was responsible. It belongs squarely to John Howard.
Peter Costello was federal treasurer from 1996 to 2007.