Some years ago, I was returning late at night to a London hotel. As I stepped out of the taxi, I realised that the man emerging from the cab ahead of mine had, even in silhouette, an unmistakably fluid gait. Clive Lloyd was shorter than I had imagined, but as he loped towards me I stuck out my hand. "Thank you," I said. I wasn't sure how to explain why I was thanking him but he smiled genially and went on his way, as if no explanation were necessary.
Lloyd was the captain of the all-conquering West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. He was a man blessed with a dignity that opponents immediately respected and he also possessed the diplomatic skills that enabled him to lead and discipline a group of supremely talented individuals who hailed from Jamaica in the north to Guyana in the south. Under his captaincy, the West Indies cricket team developed into the finest team in the world and a source of great pride not only for those in the Caribbean but for many in Britain.
Between 1948 and 1962, nearly quarter of a million West Indians migrated to Britain. The possibility of improved employment and educational opportunities in the "mother country" encouraged thousands to pack up their belongings and chance a future on the other side of the Atlantic. It is now part of the national narrative that this pioneer generation was not welcomed into the bosom of British society with open arms. Samuel Selvon's novel The Lonely Londoners (1956) superbly captures the grim weather, hard faces and social isolation that greeted many of these hopeful migrants. As the myth of British "fair play" was cast aside and the realities of prejudice and discrimination became evident, West Indians were able to comfort themselves by looking to the increasingly skilful displays of their cricketers, whose visits to Britain began to have a kind of ambassadorial significance.
In 1950, the West Indies team, under the stewardship of a white captain, achieved a notable series victory in England, and the team was immortalised in a Lord Kitchener calypso refrain, "Cricket, lovely cricket". However, when the team visited again in 1957, it was soundly defeated. It returned in 1963, this time with a black captain, Frank Worrell, and there were now enough West Indians in Britain to ensure significant groups of supporters at all grounds. A carnival-like following greeted the team both on and off the pitch.
As a five-year-old, I knew all about Garfield Sobers, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, Wes Hall, Rohan Kanhai, Charlie Griffith, Conrad Hunte and the other players, for in my house these were names that were whispered with an almost biblical reverence. When the West Indies came to play at Headingley in Leeds, the door to the house seemed to be open to a permanent crush of relatives and guests. I remember the excitement as my parents prepared to go out to a celebratory dance at which the players would be present. My own sporting world was dominated by Leeds United and an admiration for Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner. However, I understood that my parents were tolerating, not encouraging, my passion for this inelegant sport.
Much to their disappointment, I never developed a schoolboy passion for either watching or playing cricket. After all, the Yorkshire I grew up in firmly rejected the idea of anybody who hadn't been born in Yorkshire playing for the county. While other teams were eager to sign up "foreign" players from home and abroad, Yorkshire County Cricket Club remained stubbornly insular. By the mid-1970s, however, cricket had once again caught my attention. It was not English county cricket that had fired my imagination, but the exploits of the latest incarnation of the West Indies team.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, it became clear that the second generation - the children of the pioneering migrants - was not being properly assimilated into British society. Clashes with the police, exacerbated by overuse of the "sus" laws (which enabled the police to stop and search individuals at random), plus underachievement in the education system and discrimination in employment practices, had left a generation of black Britons feeling frustrated. But this generation was determined that it would not be pushed around. Britain was home and, as the poet Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in." He might have added "whether they want to or not".
As the second generation began to assert its British identity, it also searched for its "roots". While some turned to Africa, most looked to the islands that their parents had migrated from. Reggae music provided the soundtrack for the times. The second generation also looked to the West Indies cricket team, which, under Lloyd's leadership, was shaking off the pejorative label of "calypso cricketers" and establishing itself as an intimidating and commanding side.
Nineteen seventy-six was a crucial year. The West Indies team, having soundly defeated India in a home Test series, arrived in England. The unusually hot weather provided the backdrop for the visit of a confident team that, in Test after Test, tore into England. Before the start of the series, England's South African-born captain, Tony Greig, had unwisely declared that he hoped to make the West Indians "grovel". The team regarded this as a grave insult. As Vivian Richards puts it: "We took it seriously. Very, very seriously."
Soon enough, the uncompromising aggression that the West Indies team was displaying on the cricket field was being mirrored on
the streets of Britain. Throughout the spring and summer, tension between the black community and the police had been rising. This culminated in violent disturbances at the Notting Hill Carnival in August.
What Stevan Riley's new documentary, Fire in Babylon, makes clear is the extent to which the West Indian cricketers were aware of what was happening in Britain and the role they were playing in this chapter of British social history. "If the West Indies lose," says Michael Holding, "[West Indians] are even afraid to go to work because they know that their workmates will start abuse." Gordon Greenidge talks of wanting "to give the West Indians in England something to hold on to". Lloyd, Richards and Andy Roberts echo these sentiments with quietly stated eloquence and talk about their responsibility towards the people "who were looking up to you".
This sense of a link between West Indian cricket and British social history (and inequality) had already been established by Learie Constantine, who played Lancashire league cricket in the 1930s and also represented the West Indies. In 1954, Constantine published a book on racial prejudice in Britain entitled Colour Bar. Worrell had spoken out about the conditions facing West Indian immigrants in the 1950s. But 1976 proved to be a perfect storm, when the brashness of black British youth was married to the fearless determination of a young West Indian cricket team, as the empire struck back.
The West Indies team continued to dominate the game for another decade, during which time the second generation began slowly to enter the media, politics and the professions. Second-generation civil unrest on the streets of Britain continued into the 1980s, but as the hinge of generation continued to turn, black British youths began to move further away from the Caribbean, in their imaginations and loyalties. When Norman Tebbit proposed his "cricket test" in 1990, it was already irrelevant as the clumsy words fell from his lips.
It is now 35 years since Lloyd's touring team filled a generation with pride. In a Britain that was still plagued with social and economic problems and that seemed to have lost sight of us - its non-white citizens - as being anything other than a problem, the West Indies team of 1976 appeared as a resolute army, with power and creative genius in equal measure. It was fired by more than just a will to win; there was also the responsibility of representation that, to them, appeared not to be a burden. Indeed, thank you.
Caryl Phillips's next book, "Colour Me English", will be published by Harvill Secker in August
“Fire in Babylon" (12A) is on nationwide release from 20 May