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I have known about the documentary, ‘Fire in Babylon‘, for a while now. I have always wanted to watch it, but couldn’t get it. When I discovered that a book version of the documentary, by Simon Lister, has come out, I couldn’t wait to get it and read it.

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Fire in Babylon‘ is about the West Indies cricket team, which was the unofficial world test champion from the middle ’70s to the middle ’90s. The book starts from just after the 1975 World Cup which the West Indies won. Their tour of Australia followed. The West Indies team, though they played attractively, lost the series 5-1. Subsequent to that the West Indies played the Indian cricket team at home. And the Indians won an impossible match. That is when the West Indies captain Clive Lloyd decided to jettison spinners and go with a full on pace attack, which sometimes bowled intimidatingly and continued winning for the next twenty years. This book describes how that glorious era in West Indies cricket started and covers most of the important matches, major feats of batting and bowling, paints portraits of important players (one of my favourites was the one of Gordon Greenidge – that he was shy and introverted as a teenager – I always thought he looked like a nerd and I fell in love with him more when I read this), talks about the controversies and the politics including Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, the rebel West Indian tour to Australia, the relationship between the players and the board, inter-island rivalry among the players, how cricket was much more than cricket for the normal, everyday West Indian and other fascinating cricketing topics.

There is a beautiful chapter in the book which gives insightful portraits of all the great West Indian fast bowlers – Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall – and features interviews with them in which they talk about the art and technique of fast bowling and this chapter also shares their peers’ thoughts about them. It was one of my favourite chapters in the book. There is also a whole chapter dedicated exclusively to Vivian Richards, whom I love and admire so much, like every schoolboy of that era. The book also goes back into West Indian cricket history and talks about Charles Olivierre, Learie Constantine, the three Ws, especially Frank Worrell, Garry Sobers and their place in the scheme of things and how their life and cricket influenced this particular West Indies team. I loved this peek back into history. In more than a few places there were sentences in the book which said something like this – “The West Indian team had won series against Australia, England and India and so were the undisputed champions”. As an Indian cricket fan (of those times), I was happy to read those sentences 🙂 But I didn’t agree with them. I was surprised that the Pakistani cricket team was barely mentioned (there were some stray mentions here and there of players and matches), because during this time when the West Indies team was dominant, the only team which challenged its dominance was the Pakistani team – while other teams were getting walloped 3-0, 4-0 and 5-0, the Pakistani team drew three consecutive series against the West Indies team. And one of them was at home with neutral umpires, the first ever time that had happened in the history of cricket. That was one huge gap in the book, which was perfect otherwise. The book also had a beautiful introduction by Clive Lloyd in which Lloyd shares his thoughts on the book and on this glorious era of West Indies cricket. The book also has interviews of normal West Indians embedded into the book in which they talk about why a particular match or player was important and significant to them and what the success of the team meant to them as West Indians. I loved this part of the book.

Some of the other things that I wish the author had talked about in more detail, which I felt were gaps in the book, were these :

(1) There is not much coverage of England’s 1981 tour to the West Indies, though there is a description of the ‘fastest ever over’ by Holding. Geoffrey Boycott wrote a whole book about that series called ‘In the Fast Lane‘.

(2) There is not much mention of the players from other teams who resisted the West Indian dominance during that era. Sunil Gavaskar is mentioned in just one place (I was hoping that his innings in Delhi in 1983, when he shed his defensive cloak and played more like Vivian Richards than like Sunil Gavaskar would find a mention) and there is no mention of Allan Lamb (Lamb made three hundreds in that ‘blackwash’ series of 1984, and then a few years later came back to haunt the West Indies in the 1987 World Cup when he made 18 runs in the last over to win the match for England – Lamb was a thorn in the West Indian flesh).

(3) The coverage of the post Clive Lloyd era is very brief. Lloyd captained for ten years. His successor Vivian Richards captained for six. Lots of wonderful things happened during Viv’s reign. They have all been compressed into one chapter. I wish there was more space given to that.

There were some interesting things that I learnt from the book. Some of them were these :

(1) ‘Dependant‘ is the noun form of the adjective ‘dependent‘. I didn’t know that! I have always spelt it as ‘dependent‘! The Oxford dictionary says that both are correct, but the former is the traditional spelling, while the latter is more common today. Love learning new things about the English language everyday!

(2) Guyana is in South America. I thought that the writer had got it wrong! Because I always thought that Guyana was an island! Then I went and checked the map and discovered that the book was right and I was wrong. So that is Simon Lister 1 – Vishy 0! I can’t believe that I got this wrong all my life till now! I thought I was good in geography!

(3) The book talks about a 1981 series between West Indies and Australia which West Indies won. The series I knew, which happened at around that time, was drawn 1-1. So I thought – “Yes! I have got the cricket writer on cricket history!” Well, it turns out that both of us were right! There was a series in 1979-80, which was drawn and another in 1981-82 which was won by the West Indies team. I don’t know why that 1979-80 series was not mentioned because it was one of the great ones. Ian Chappell wrote a beautiful essay about it. Well, one more new thing learnt 🙂

(4) David Murray is the son of Everton Weekes – I didn’t know that!

If you, like me, were a huge fan of the West Indies team while growing up and loved Richards and Marshall and Holding and Roberts and Greenidge and Haynes and Lloyd and others, you will love this book. It is a beautiful depiction of West Indies cricket history of that glorious era and if we ignore a few of the omissions, it is perfect. I have only one regret. I wish C.L.R.James was alive today. And I wish he had written this book. Because this was his book to write. Unfortunately, he is not around, and in his absence, Simon Lister has done a magnificent job.

Have you read ‘Fire in Babylon‘? What do you think about it?

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