For two years or so, early in my life as ordained church minister, I was co-chaplain to Leyton Orient Football Club. This wasn’t a paid post – it was in the parish I was working in, and an opportunity arose to help out there as part of my day-to-day work. Leyton Orient isn’t a big club – outside of English-based football fans, it’s a club unlikely to be known. It sits in a diverse, bustling part of East London, at the heart of the community of Leyton from which it takes its name. It has a small stadium which I rarely saw full. It was during my time there that a chaplain at another club said to me words which explain much – both about the mentality of the professional athlete and that of the committed fan. “There are two crucial lessons you need to learn as a sports chaplain”, he said. “The first lesson is that it’s only a game. The second is that it’s never only a game. Learn those lessons and you’ll be alright”.
Those words came back to me when I first saw Fire In Babylon – a 2010 documentary film about the dominant West Indies test cricket team of the 1980s. They were only a playing a game – but, as the film compellingly demonstrates, it was never only a game. The film simply, creatively tells the story of Test match cricket as the quintessentially English pursuit. A sport exported via colonialism to a select, but diverse collection of countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean Islands. It’s that last geographic destination that this film concentrates on. That’s because cricket is everything to that group. Everything in that they only exist as a collective for the purposes of international cricket. The West Indies national anthem is about cricket. The team plays home games on a variety of different islands. They unite, different cultures and passports and places, around this and this only.
So the team rediscovered something – aggressive, direct fast bowling. I say fast – a small, hard missile aimed at your head or ribcage, travelling at 90-95 mph. As team after team fell – literally fell – before them Test cricket was turned from a 5-day chess match to a full on contact sport. Equipment and rules changed, and the West Indies dominated.
But what this meant beyond the game was more important. A team of black players, finding their own voice and expression, defeating and humiliating the white colonial masters on their own soil. Wrestling with the decision to play – for money – in apartheid South Africa. Moving from loveable, but flawed entertainers to a beautiful, brilliant, at times flawless professional team. Bob Marley was the soundtrack, the West Indies team the visuals.
Fire In Babylon is the 90 minute explanation, with fantastic music, of why 5 day test cricket is way more than a sport. It’s a test of mind and body, heart and soul. It’s an expression of freedom and means of oppression. It is – like all great sport – metaphor for many, many deeper things. It reminds me that when I can’t tear myself away from updates and coverage of an England Test match or Arsenal; that the emotions that bruise, batter, enrapture and enfold me as I follow are not really about the sport. They are about the family I grew up watching these sports in, learning about them in, going to the grounds as part of. These games aren’t games; they are a way of telling the story of our lives, our families, our countries and our communities. Ask South Africa about 1995; Liverpool Football Club about the number 96; or the American people why it’s important that a team of (then) no stars called the Patriots won the Superbowl in early 2002. If you want a book to read, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is as good as you’ll get on this – in that case from the point of view of a football fan.
There must always be perspective – we all know people, or are people who need to remember that sport is, just sport. But those tempted to criticise and sneer must also know that it’s never just that. Fire In Babylon shows and tells this, to stunning effect.
At the time, some said the West Indies team that was sweeping all before it was ruining Test cricket. In a way they were.
But sometimes you have to ruin something in order to discover it.
I rated this move 9/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com