From February 1980 to March 1995, the West Indies never lost a test series. And for many - they were also the unofficial World XI. Was there a non-West Indian player from that era who could have made it into that team?
Would Ian Botham have commanded a spot? Imran Khan? Kapil Dev? Greg Chappell? Would it have been possible to have slotted a declining but still great Dennis Lillee into a pace attack lead by Malcolm Marshall and that included Andy “The Godfather” Roberts, Michael “Whispering Death" Holding, Joel “Big Bird" Garner, and Colin “The Smiling Assassin” Croft? And what about the still maturing Sachin Tendulkar? Who would you have dropped for him? Haynes, Greenidge, Richardson, Richards or Lloyd? And as for glovemen – Jeff Dujon was head and shoulders above any of his contemporaries because he was also a recognised batsman - albeit one who sat smoking in a dressing room for days before the necessary wickets fell and it was his turn to bat.
No, the team was perfect just as it was. In fact, the West Indies of that time were among the most dominant sporting teams in history – the equivalent of Manchester United’s 1998-99 outfit, the 1927 New York Yankees and the All Blacks of any era. And they were telegenic too – not just with looks, athleticism and skill, but their best batsman had more charisma than any movie star. Hollywood, I see your John Wayne and raise you Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. The camera loved “Viv” as he stood at the crease - no helmet, slowly chewing gum as the bowler approached. Sure, the camera loved Wayne too, but did Wayne have the power of 10 men and the anaerobic muscles of a cheater? Could Wayne hit Lillee for six like he was swatting flies at a BBQ? This was my childhood. The West Indies were super-humans.
But time marches on and even the best history fades.
Thankfully, in 2011, a film called Fire In Babylon was able to eulogise this remarkable team in a way that would make cricket fans nostalgic and non-cricket fans understand its greatness. Directed by Steven Riley, Babylon begins by charting the fortunes of West Indies cricket from the 1960s and '70s, when its team was patronised for being “entertainers” rather than winners. He then moves the story to the Windies 1975/76 tour of Australia, where they were humiliated in the test series 5-1, pummeled by a pace attack lead by Lillee and Jeff Thompson and abused by racist Australian crowds. And that, according to Riley’s Babylon, was the moment when the victim became the aggressor.
Within a year, a more resolute Windies outfit were in England determined to prove themselves against their former colonial masters. This was the era of Black Power and African liberation. It wasn’t like they needed extra inspiration. But they found it anyway in the form of England captain Tony Greig, who boasted that the English would make the Windies "grovel”. I don’t want to give too much away. But those words would backfire on Greig in the most horrible manner and give birth to two decades of ruthless, unchallenged, West Indian rule.
Cricket tragics will notice vital parts of the Windies journey missing in Fire in Babylon – their ’75 and ’79 World Cup wins, for a start. But this film is about more than the greatest cricket team ever – it’s about politics, celebrating the human spirit transcending decades of oppression, and my awestruck childhood.
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Before Australia’s disastrous 1981 Ashes tour of England, my only experience with grief was when my pet hermit crab died. Indeed, the whole calamity of losing a series that we should easily have won was too much for my 9 year-old brain. I remember asking my dad why Greg Chappell didn’t go on the tour? Why Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee hated Kim Hughes? Why Ian Botham, who couldn’t bat, bowl or catch in the first two tests, was suddenly playing like a God? And why Australia couldn’t chase small totals?
My poor Dad. He was only half interested in cricket. But here he was trying to answer questions that would flummox cricket fans for more than 30 years before becoming the subject of the 2010 documentary, From The Ashes.
The film starts off with us being introduced to England captain and star player, Ian Botham – the greatest all-rounder in the world. He was the fastest to “the double” of a 1000 runs and 100 wickets and could change the course of a game in an afternoon. In the film he’s portrayed as a bit of a lad. We see that his teammates call him “Beefy”, that he loves a beer, and that he sometimes appears on televised game shows. Then the Ashes series starts and Australia wins the first test and convincingly draws the second. Botham can’t catch a break. After dismal performances with the bat, ball and in the field, he’s replaced as captain for the third test by Middlesex’s Mike Brearly.
Now Brearly was the opposite of Botham in every way. He was upper class, a classics scholar, he ran like an old man and his batting wouldn’t land him a place in an Australian A-Grade club side. But he was a master tactician and leader of men. Before the third test, he told the out-of-sorts Botham that Botham would star and that’s exactly what happened. The deposed captain’s heroics, orchestrated by the upbeat Brearly, pulled off two stunning back-from-the-dead victories which lead England to win the Ashes against a backdrop of recession, royal weddings, Thatcher and rioting on the streets.
However, from an Australian cricket fan’s perspective – the documentary leaves you with more questions than answers. Kim Hughes, the then Australian captain, and Rod Marsh, vice captain, give their points of view – and both agree that Marsh didn’t pay Hughes the appropriate amount of respect. But instead of Marsh saying, with the wisdom of hindsight, that he should have put his own ambitions aside and supported the young skipper – he suggested that it would have been better had he not gone on the tour at all.
From the Ashes by James Erskine is a fantastic movie with a tone-setting soundtrack featuring The Specials, The Clash, The Police, New Order and Squeeze. It not only has interviews with the aforementioned Marsh and Hughes but also with Botham, third test hero Bob Willis, Brearly and cricket’s poet laureates Gideon Haigh and the late Christopher Martin Jenkins. Erskine even talks to legendary umpire Dicky Bird, who officiated in the series, and reveals himself to be a little one-eyed. Now he tells us.
Yeah, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about the ’81 Ashes. It was the series that Australia pissed up against the wall. But like the great tragedies Hamlet, King Lear and Titanic – you watch because it’s all in the telling.
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