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From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the West Indies dominated the world of cricket. No team was more feared, or fearsome, than the 11 cricketers plucked from disparate Caribbean nations. Their talent united the islands, transformed the style of cricket and became a metaphor for nations struggling under racism and oppression. Kojo explores their story, captured in the new documentary “Fire in Babylon.”
- Marc Grossman Director and Writer, "Fire in Babylon"
- Suresh Neelapala President, Washington Warriors Cricket Club; and Secretary, Washington Cricket League
- Dave Zirin Sports Editor, The Nation; Author, "Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love" (Scribner); author, "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (New Press)
“Fire in Babylon” Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the new take on the legend of Doc Holliday or Doc, was actually a dentist. But first, every sport has a moment, a moment when you realize that the players are transcending mere sports. Take the 1980 U.S. hockey victory over the Soviets in Lake Placid, for example, or Joe Louis' defeat of Max Schmeling in the 1938 prize fight at Yankee Stadium. For the people of the West Indies, their transcendent moment lasted 15 years, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEleven cricket players from the Caribbean turning the genteel sport they'd inherited from their colonial occupiers on its head. During those Halcyon Days, no one seemed to be able to beat the powerful pitchers or bowlers who threw 90-mile-per-hour balls, sometimes bloodying, sometimes terrifying the opposition. Their domination became a source of intense pride for black people during the waning days of apartheid.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow their story has come to the big screen in "Fire in Babylon," a documentary showing tomorrow and Saturday at the AFI Silverdocs Film Festival. And joining us to discuss this by phone from Silver Spring is Stevan Riley. He is director and writer of "Fire in Babylon." Stevan Riley, thank you for joining us. Joining us in studio is Dave Zirin. He's a columnist for Slam magazine. He's sports editor of Nation magazine, online columnist for Sports Illustrated. He's also the author of the upcoming book, "The John Carlos Story." Zirin, always a pleasure.
MR. DAVE ZIRINGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Suresh Neelapala. He is the president of the Washington Warriors Cricket team. Suresh Neelapala, good to have you in studio with us.
MR. SURESH NEELAPALAPleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIPersonal statement. What most Americans have seen of cricket might be a one-minute commercial featuring Jerry Seinfeld in which after failing to connect with a ball, he says, that was a wicked googly, the word googly itself, suggesting that this is a sport in which even the Lexicon is incomprehensible. My own introduction to the sport was in my native Guyana where I played it from elementary through high school and got to know well some of the players who would become world famous.
NNAMDII'm a contemporary and friend of Clive Lloyd, who was the captain of the team this movie focuses on. I remember the late Frank Worrell who was the first black captain the West Indies team ever got in the early 1960s. But I was living in Washington, raising children during the glory years of this team from 1975 to 1990 and I missed it all. So, for me, "Fire in Babylon" is a revelation in some respects. I don't know if we have Stevan Riley. Stevan Riley, you're on the phone. Are you with us? We don't have Stevan Riley yet. We're still trying to get him. Stevan Riley, it's my understanding you're there now. Can you hear me?
MR. STEVAN RILEYYes, I can. Hi.
NNAMDIStevan, you grew up in the UK, it's my understanding, as a football or soccer fan. Why did you start watching cricket?
RILEYYou know, what my -- I moved around a lot. I didn't really go to cricketing schools. So there was enough of them in the U.K., but it always seem to be soccer for me. But I was about nine years of age when I first watched the West Indies play against the English one summer in 1984. And it really opened my eyes. I mean, the West Indies team completely changed the game, not least because they made the game super dangerous. I think a lot of people imagine cricket to be cricket, this very sedate kind of like civilized affair with tea and cucumber sandwiches, what have you.
RILEYBut the West Indies team, they did away with slow bowlers, with people who span the ball or medium pace and introduced an all-out pace attack. And all of their guys could bowl close to 100 miles an hour with a ball that's a lot heavier than a baseball. I mean, when you look at a cricket ball, it's a lot larger. It's weighs perhaps twice, maybe even more than twice as much as a baseball and with a harsh stitching around the center. And in the hands of West Indies team, it was a lethal weapon.
NNAMDIAnd in those days, the batsmen or batters didn't wear protective gear, did they? Except around the feet, the pads around their legs.
RILEYYeah, they'd wear the shin pads. But it wasn't until the West Indies and the way the West Indies changed the game -- the game of cricket became a lot faster paced after the West Indies team -- that people realized the pace and skill combined would really win matches. And, yes, there were no helmets, no chest protection, body armor that you now see in the modern game.
NNAMDIYour documentary series -- the documentary portrays the 1975 Australia-West Indies test series as one of the seminal moments for the captain of the team, Clive Lloyd and his team. They were beaten 5 to 1, insulted and humiliated by the Australian fans. How important was that match ultimately for the West Indies team? Hadn't the competitive spirit already been brewing even before that humiliating loss?
RILEYNo, without a doubt. I mean, when you look at the history of cricket in the West Indies, you see that, you know, cricket was a real vehicle for the social and physical change going back decades, centuries even. I mean, even going back to the more sort of painful side of slave history. Cricket was one of the few avenues where black Caribbeans could express themselves and, you know, and share a stage with very commonly, you know, masters and prove themselves as equals.
RILEYAnd you'd see that, you know, that cricket was often the forerunner to political change in the West Indies. And even, you know, famously, there was a cricket -- it was a black cricket captain of the West Indies well before there was a first black prime minister, for example, or several years before. So, you know, leaping ahead to the team that the film tells the story of, the seminal experience for them was in '75.
RILEYThey went to Australia. And this is an entirely young team, by the way. They're all kind of like -- it was a very kind of fresh-faced, youthful team that was under the captaincy of perhaps the only kind of like more -- slightly elderly statesman of the team, Clive Lloyd and his vice captain, Deryck Murray. They went to Australia, fairly kind of like innocent in their views, in their approach to the game. And I'd say that that innocence was robbed from them or at least listening to their testimonies, you find that was so because of the treatment they faced in Australia.
RILEYAnd the cricket was incredibly hard. Australia had its own fast bowlers, two guys who were among the fastest the game's ever seen, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, these Australians. And they roughed up. They really kind of brutalized the West Indies players. There were plenty of injuries on the West Indies side. But the West Indies didn't only have to suffer that. They also had a lot of, you know, abuse from the players and the crowd during that series -- and racial abuse.
RILEYAnd I think a lot of them, you know, they kind of left that humiliating defeat and really reassessed their game. And I think the West Indies cricket became a lot more sort of like hardnosed and determined after that. And they were very much determined that they weren't going to be humiliated like that again. And they were going to assert themselves to prove to all the detractors that, you know, we're going to prove ourselves to be equals and better than you on the cricket field.
NNAMDIThey had to gather a team that, in some respects, could play at least as down and dirty as the Australians. We're talking with Stevan Riley, director and writer of "Fire in Babylon," a documentary about the West Indies cricket team of the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Joining us in our Washington studio is Suresh Neelapala. He is president of the Washington Warriors cricket team, and Dave Zirin, columnist for Slam magazine, sports editor of the Nation magazine, online columnist for Sports Illustrated and author of the upcoming book, "The Carlos Story."
NNAMDIWhen I saw the documentary "Fire in Babylon," the first thing that sprang to my mind is I want to see how Dave Zirin reacts to this. And he joins us in studio now. I said, because I was not there for those years, it was a revelation for me. What was it for you, Dave Zirin?
ZIRINKojo, I am hardly a cricket aficionado, nor would I profess to be. And I also say with a little bit of humility that I have seen hundreds of sports documentaries over the course of my professional life. "Fire in Babylon" is the best sports documentary I've ever seen. Period. It's the best one I've ever seen. I don't care if you are a basketball fan, a baseball fan. If you don't know cricket from a googly, as you said, if you are around this city Saturday, you need to go to Silverdocs and see this film.
ZIRINAnd let me tell you why it was so wonderful, even as someone who doesn't know a great deal about the sport. It's because I saw pieces of every sports political narrative that's ever entranced me in this one story.
NNAMDISit back, folks.
ZIRINI was thinking about Jack Johnson and the way boxing became a staging ground for fighting the worst kinds of white supremacy and racism in the early, the 20th century. You see that in the story. I was thinking about Pele and the way the Brazilians took what was a colonial sport in soccer and then transformed it and made it their own. I saw Satchel Paige in the way he rose above the minstrelsy that was expected of him as a negro league player and actually found his manhood through his sport instead of being put in a step and fetch it like situation.
ZIRINYou remember the Calypso Collapsers and the West Indian players having to rise above being called the Calypso Collapsers. I saw Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, people who used sports to advance social cause. And then other stories like Arthur Ash and the battle against apartheid through sports is in there. So to have all of these stories come together in one with the soundtrack by Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. I mean, my jaw was on the floor.
NNAMDIStevan Riley, have you gotten that response, that kind of response any place else?
RILEYYou know, you set out and, you know, you're making a cricket film. And, again, I wanted to approach it from the perspective of -- West Indian perspective first and foremost, but also from the perspective of non-cricket fans. But, you know, you're never quite sure. You do your best. You don't know whether it's actually going to break through and translate as a broader story, you know, for people who aren't fans of cricket. But I think it's just that and, you know, we've had the release now in the U.K. and it's frankly done really well there.
RILEYWe've had, you know, just a great response. The film has been exceptionally well and great reviews and whatnot. And also, in the West Indies, we had a premier at Kingston and that was, you know, again, just a really good reaction. And even at Tribeca, we showed it in the States for the first time and we weren't really too sure what the response is going to be. But all the screenings were sold out. And then, on the last screening, apparently they had to turn away as many people who were in the theater that were queuing outside. So that was a big shock.
NNAMDIAllow me to invite some callers, 800-433-8850. Are you a cricket fan? What influence did the West Indies teams have on how you view the sport? 800-433-8850. What does cricket mean to you? 800-433-8850. Is it a way to connect with your homeland? You can also go to our website, kojo.org. Join the conversation there. Suresh Neelapala is president of the Washington Warriors. As a kid growing up in India, Suresh, what did you know about, hear about Clive Lloyd and the West Indian cricket team that we are talking about?
NEELAPALACricket took off big time in India around '83, when India actually won the World Cup. And they won the World Cup beating the West Indian team. The West Indian team at that point was supposed to actually win that World Cup. So for India, that was the moment that defined cricket for the whole country and actually the subcontinent. Cricket took off big time. Everybody, including me who was growing up, that was a time we started paying a lot of attention to cricket.
NEELAPALAAnd cricket became that sport, especially in India where it can be played very easily on a street with a piece of wood, a small ball and three sticks or the back of a building, where you draw three lines on a wall and call them the wickets. So for a lot of people who were in my generation, cricket from that moment became the focus of all of our energies. And international sports, every time somebody came -- one of the international teams came visiting to India, we used to flock to the TVs. We used to watch how the game was played.
NEELAPALAWe used to try and mimic what they were trying to do. West Indian team was one of the big teams back then. Every time they came to India, Vivian Richards was one of the most popular players for -- at that time for the whole world.
NNAMDIHe is one of the players featured in the movie, of course.
NEELAPALAAnd so that was what it was like for us.
NNAMDIDave Zirin, when you look at this and take in the social context in which "Fire in Babylon" was made, for me, being -- growing up in that environment and then being away from it all when this happened, I only knew that the West Indies cricket team was winning. I did not know the details. But this film puts it in the kind of social context that even allowed me, for the first time, to really understand the significance of it. And you just got it like that.
ZIRINYeah, because, I think, the director, Stevan, on the line, of course, he walks you through the context in a way that's very clear. And I felt like -- it was good because politically I didn't necessarily need someone to take me by the hand through that, but I did in terms of seeing what it is that is so entrancing about cricket as a sport. And I think that Stevan Riley does both very successfully, walks you through the politics and walks you through the excitement.
ZIRINI -- like I said, I'm not a cricket aficionado, but I was watching the cricket scenes from the edge of my seat. Not just taking in the political scenes. My experience comes from playing a great deal of baseball, growing up. And there's that part of baseball where the pitcher plays what's called chin music, when they whiz a 95 mile an hour fastball right by your chin and then the whole stadium wakes up from its slumber and says, woo.
ZIRINAnd it was like, pardon the expression for baseball fans, but it's like chin music on steroids to see some of these fast pitchers, the fastballers. And especially the way they lined up on that West Indian team, to have players in these genteel uniforms be nicknamed Whispering Death. I mean, this is very dramatic and very exciting. And to see the ball hop and bounce and for a batsman to actually have to position their body to get in front of it.
ZIRINI mean, imagine if you were facing Nolan Ryan on a baseball field and you weren't allowed to bat to the side of the plate, but had to sort of stand in front of it. You get the idea of the dramatics of cricket, which are captured so well.
NNAMDIStevan, the West Indies had always had talented cricket players, so what was different about this team? Why did it work so well?
RILEYI think it was a product of the time. You know, it was that particular generation where, I think, everything kind of fused. It was the culmination of a movement that had been taking place a long time before. And, you know, the players make a special point of paying homage to the, you know, the other generations that proceeded them, you know, who did lead the way. But this particular generation, they were, as one of the players said, they were born in the colonial era and then they -- but they grew up in the period of independence.
RILEYBecause all the islands, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua and so on, they all became independent of the old empire in the '60s. And so there was this real sense that actually, you know, we're going to start from scratch and forge a new history, an independent history. You know, build our own cultural and historical touchstones that we can be proud of and independent of, you know, a ruling force from elsewhere.
RILEYYou know, this is going to be ours and ours alone. And I think they really kind of carried that passion and pride. But also, you know, there was some other strands involved. There was, you know, a sense for the first time with being independent, reconnecting with Africa. And Africa had always been a term of shame, I think, to many West Indians, when you speak to them, you know, from that era.
RILEYThey would say, oh, you know, we wouldn't want to associate ourselves with Africa and there was a lot of distance, a place there. But, you know, with the roots movement of Bob Marley and a lot of these other Reggae lyrics that were coming through about, actually, you know, recognizing your roots, understanding your past and connecting with it, with a sense of pride. And thinking, you know, actually, we're not going to be ashamed of that. We're going to actually emulate the achievements of our forefathers and not deny them.
NNAMDIThe movie features two friends of mine who are -- who fall into that category, King Frank-I and Ja-bone (sp?) , who, I guess, you'll have to see the movie to understand who they are, but they're both Rastafarians, actually. Here is Dave Zirin.
ZIRINYeah and the scenes of the Rastafari (sp?) political commentary in the film is also fascinating and provides tremendous texture. But the players are no slouches themselves in expressing their political beliefs and how it connects sports and politics. So that's another thing I thought that separated it from other sports documentaries where you have the athlete sort of say the play by play and then the political talking heads parallel to them.
ZIRINThis was one of those things where the Rastafari were clearly big cricket fans and the cricket players knew their politics. But Stevan, one question I had for you that I didn't see fully explored in the film was, I found it fascinating that you had a West Indian team that was comprised by people from Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana. Was this a challenge in and of itself for Clive Lloyd to stitch together players who -- from different countries?
ZIRINHow did that work?
NNAMDIFrom 13 different countries.
ZIRINThirteen. Amazing, 13 different countries. Was that ever a challenge on the team or was there a broader kind of regional nationalism that allowed that to be overcome?
NNAMDIBefore Stevan answers that specifically, I'll tell you, it was a challenge then, it's a challenge now. Stevan.
RILEYNo, it's true. I mean, actually people in the present day, you know, because the team has declined since '95 and they say that West Indian disunity kind of crept back in. But if you read the history -- and there's some comments that'll say that actually this history was inbred, you know, not just by the separation of the Caribbean sea between these islands, but from the very earliest days when the slave boats would come over and the Africans were split according -- they were mixed, rather, in terms of their language and tribes were separated.
RILEYAnd there were divisions placed from the very earliest times. And that actually, there was -- within this romantic movement that I think the cricket embodied, there this sense of kind of unity again. As I mentioned, you know, kind of this Pan-African re-expirational (sp?) -- reconnection with Africa and the sense of kind of a finding unity despite their in, you know, divisions that were arguably implanted and forced upon them.
NNAMDIHere is Neil in Washington, D.C. Neil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NEILHello, Kojo, how are you doing?
NEILHello to all of the panel up there. I just wanted to let you know that I am the chairman for Washington Softball Cricket Association. I host the Embassy Cup here. I've managed to do this by bringing all the embassies that play cricket, actually, and invite them and we started a tournament. What would be interesting is, Kojo, that knowing that you were Guyanese, the first time we hosted this tournament, Guyana won the cup.
NNAMDIWithout me? Everything seems to happen without me. But, Neil, thank you very much because that allows me to talk to Suresh about playing cricket in the U.S. now. Suresh, it's my understanding you never expected to play cricket in the U.S.
NEELAPALAYes, I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I would be playing cricket at that level in this country. I came here and I was playing -- I was so fond of cricket. Cricket was, you know, what I did -- I played for my university, played all through my life in India. So one day, myself and my roommate, who was also passionate about cricket, both of us were in our architectural studio at Morgenstedet (sp?) . We were actually playing with a tennis ball and a small flag wooden stick. Another friend happened to see us play and he said, hey, you guys are playing cricket, I actually know...
NNAMDILike, the way we played it when I grew up.
NEELAPALAExactly. And the drafting boards were the wickets.
NEELAPALASo he mentioned that one of us uncles actually plays for a cricket league and he invited us to actually join him the next time they played. I expected it to be some kind of tennis cricket ball game, you know, pick up cricket game, kind of. I was -- to my surprise, it was organized cricket. It was mad. Everybody was dressed in white. And, of course, we had to travel about an hour and a half to get there, but it did not matter.
NEELAPALAOnce I saw that, I knew I was, you know, that I was where I needed to be. And since that time, I have been playing. It's been more than 14 years. I've been playing cricket in this area. And...
NNAMDIHere is Sanjav (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Sanjav, your turn.
SANJAVOh, all right, Kojo. I just wanted to say that, you know, coming from cricket crazy country like India, when you come here, you try to -- you cannot help but be, you know, be immersed with baseball and there's always this comparison that it is done. And, you know, always my American friends try to tell me the superiority of baseball over cricket. And coming from a country where cricket is religion, like in India, it's much -- definitely you can appreciate the wonders of baseball and the differences.
SANJAVBut for somebody who's already had that in mind, it's much difficult to really get that comparison and admit that's a good (word?) of either game because (word?) as it might be, nobody is going to accept that the other game is much superior than their own. And I just like to add that, not many people know that last year, actually, in 2010, May, the U.S. actually hosted the first ever international -- one day internationals between...
SANJAV...New Zealand and Sri Lanka in Florida.
SANJAVThere is two days of international that I think (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDINew stadium in Florida, right? New cricket stadium in Florida, correct?
SANJAVExactly, exactly. And then I was there and I happened to see that and I think, you know, my excitement levels was, you know, it knew no bounds because -- then -- it should know that, okay, today U.S. is also ready to accept cricket in whatever its capacity. And I think it's thanks to the immigrants that come over here from all parts of the world who follow cricket. And also I want to say that in the technology, with the internet and all that, it's not difficult to follow cricket on the internet in whichever part of the country that it's played. Because most of the time, you can get on the net and get some streaming video (unintelligible)
NNAMDIThat's where most of my friends get it. Dave Zirin.
ZIRINYeah, you know, we can have opinions and we -- and there are facts. And I want to speak a little bit about this baseball/cricket comparison. Because we can all have our opinions about whether baseball is a better game than cricket, but I have to say that what is a fact is the passion of a cricket crowd, I think, absolutely trumps the passion of a baseball crowd. I don't care if you're talking about...
SANJAVThank you, Dave.
ZIRIN...even the real crazies, the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox. I mean, it's much more -- just to -- so people out there who don't know, think about much more of almost like a college football crowd where there's an intense rivalry on the field. Nobody's texting, nobody's tweeting. Everybody is riveted to what's happening on the field. People are scared to go to the bathroom. That's what a cricket crowd more encompasses, which, frankly, is just a notch above your typical baseball audience.
NNAMDIRunning out of time. Very quickly, but there are two other things I do have to get to. One, with you, Suresh, and then the other one I'll get to with Stevan with a phone call. With you, Suresh, it's no surprise that most players on the Washington Cricket League were born outside the U.S. How big is the league and how big is cricket culture here in Washington?
NEELAPALAThe league has about 1,500 members, active members, which are currently playing or have played in the last year or so. But I think there are about 2,200 or so people who are registered with the league. So -- and it's got 34 clubs. We play every weekend in season, which is about second week of April all the way through first week of October.
NNAMDIWeekend warriors. And the Washington Warriors have made it their mission to introduce American kids to cricket? What are you doing?
NEELAPALAThat's correct. One of the things that we realized is, for the sustainment of the sports, in support of cricket in the United States, it's really important that American kids actually appreciate it and actually get involved. If immigrants, like us, they can only take it to some distance, beyond that for the sport to sustain in the United States, it's American kids. So we started this initially where we were beginning to go to schools.
NEELAPALAWe have done it at Fairfax county. We actually have done it for over 30 schools. We started going to the schools, trying to tell them how to play cricket. We showed them how easy it is for them to play and for us -- United States Youth Cricket Association also joined. They provided us some cricket equipment, which we give away for free. This is what we're trying to do so...
NNAMDIDemonstrations in Fairfax county schools?
NEELAPALARight. We are...
NNAMDII got to move on, I'm sorry about that. But here is Akeen (sp?) in Baltimore, Md. Akeen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AKEENHey, I just wanted to say this is great hearing about this movie. I got to go watch it. I was -- growing up in England -- I'm Nigerian, by the way. And I was growing up in England at the time when this team was doing amazing things for black pride throughout the world. And I lived down the road from Lord's Cricket Ground. And when the chess match would be on, you know, toward the end, we'd all go out there. The whole crowd of us, international, it didn't matter where you from.
AKEENAnd this team did amazing things for just simple black consciousness. This was the time when Margaret Thatcher was in power. It was a very unpopular policy to watch South Africa at the time of engagement. But this team came along and, you know, we didn't play cricket from -- you know, none of us played cricket. I mean, I went to school in England. I played some, but I was not for a sport. But after this team and what they did, we were all cricket aficionados (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDII can understand it. Stevan, what do you want audience to take away from your film when they come out of the theater?
RILEYDo you know, I think there's a lot of serious messages behind it, but as well, I think it's -- like, it's a really uplifting and it's a fun film. You know, the West Indies starter play was very entertaining and that was a simple one to capture in the film as well. So there's a lot of humor in there. That -- it's interesting that, you know, a lot of girls who watch it have actually given the most -- the best responses on -- which has always been a bit of shock.
RILEYBut, yeah, just a source of inspiration really. And then, much like the last guy said, you know, I think they won over all the neutrals and they really were a force for unity, not just within the black community but, you know, in -- worldwide.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Stevan Riley is director and writer of "Fire in Babylon," a documentary about the West Indies cricket team of the mid 1970s and early -- and the 1980's. It's at the Silverdocs Festival at the AFI Silverdocs. And on Saturday evening after it shows, I'll be hosting a panel discussion there.
NNAMDIDave Zirin is a columnist for Slam Magazine, sports editor of The Nation Magazine, online columnist for Sports Illustrated. He's also author of the upcoming book "The John Carlos Story" (word?) ...
ZIRINAnd a new cricket fan.
NNAMDI…Zirin's got to see this. I think I made a good call.
NEELAPALAWe can make a player out of you (word?) .
NNAMDII see. Suresh Neelapala is President of the Washington Warriors cricket team. Thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the legend of Doc Holliday. Doc was actually a dentist. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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