Graeme Smith receives a notebook computer some years earlier from then Consul-General Suresh Goel, left, as Sahara Computers managing director Atul Gupta looks on. File photo
Graeme Smith receives a notebook computer some years earlier from then Consul-General Suresh Goel, left, as Sahara Computers managing director Atul Gupta looks on. File photo

How the Guptas bowled out SA cricket

By OPINION Time of article published Apr 23, 2017

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This is an extract from The Republic of Gupta by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, which shines new light on the Guptas' controversial ventures.

Johannesburg - The Guptas rose to infamy when a commercial airliner packed with guests for a family wedding was allowed to land at Air Force Base Waterkloof in 2013, sparking public outrage.

They have since been embroiled in allegations of state capture, of dishing out cabinet posts to officials who would do their bidding, and of benefiting from lucrative state contracts.

The Republic of Gupta investigates what the brothers were up to during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency and how they got into the inner circle of President Jacob Zuma.

It shines new light on their controversial ventures in computers, cricket, newspapers and TV news, and coal and uranium mining.

And it explores their exposure by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, their conflict with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the real reasons behind the cabinet reshuffle of March 2017.

While Sahara Computers and its sister companies became increasingly involved in government-funded projects, the Guptas decided to take a swing at the local cricket establishment.

In April 2004, word got out that Sahara Computers had closed a deal with the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCB), now called Cricket South Africa (CSA), for the naming rights of three of South Africa’s most beloved cricket grounds.

A report by seasoned cricket journalist-turned CSA spin doctor Michael Owen-Smith, published before the official announcement, set out some of the deal’s details and captured the early disapproval of the cricketing establishment.

Many cricket fans were beyond upset upon hearing that some of the country’s most hallowed cricket grounds, including Cape Town’s then 116-year-old Newlands stadium, would incorporate Sahara’s name in their official titles.

“You have ruined my evening. I nearly dropped the phone and now I want to throw something at the TV set,” an irked Hylton Ackerman, former Western Province captain and coach, told Owen-Smith after he had been informed that Newlands could be renamed Sahara Park Newlands.

Two days later it was announced at an official ceremony at Newlands that Sahara had paid R25 million for the naming rights to Newlands, Port Elizabeth’s St George’s Park and Durban’s Kingsmead.

St George’s Park, South Africa’s oldest cricket ground, would be known as Sahara Oval St Georges, while Durban’s famous ground was to be renamed Sahara Stadium Kingsmead. The contract was for five years.

Apart from the anger in some quarters, the deal also highlighted the confusion over the relationship between the Guptas’ Sahara Computers and Sahara India Pariwar, the much older and larger Indian conglomerate, which was a sponsor of the Indian national cricket team.

Almost all of the cricket scribes writing about the deal incorrectly referred to the Guptas’ company as an international one based in India.

“The deal has been struck with Sahara Computers, which is a subsidiary of Sahara Holdings, one of the largest industrial companies in India. They are the sponsors of the Indian cricket team,” wrote Owen-Smith in his original report, clearly confusing the two Saharas.

Altus Momberg, also a seasoned South African cricket writer, referred to Sahara as an “Indian computer company… which is also the main sponsor of the Indian national side”.

The error was understandable. There had been widespread uncertainty within the South African IT industry about Sahara Computers’ relationship with Sahara India Pariwar.

Even today there is a widely held sentiment within the sector that the Guptas “piggybacked” on the name of the better known company.

The Guptas have of course denied the accusation, but, for all their bluster about independence, Sahara Computers’ decision to sponsor the UCB was a curious one, seeing that Sahara India Pariwar had become the main sponsor of the Indian cricket team in 2001.

Some of the most senior cricket officials involved in the deal also seemed to be confused about the identity of the company that had bought the naming rights to three of their stadiums.

Defending the deal, Arnold Bloch, then president of the Western Province Cricket Association, insisted “we have taken a decision that takes our business interests into account … this could lead to other international companies advertising at Newlands.” 

He clearly thought the internationally renowned Sahara India Pariwar and Sahara Computers were one and the same.

To be fair, Atul Gupta did make an attempt to clear up the confusion. In a follow-up article by Owen-Smith, Gupta was quoted as saying “there is no financial connection” between his family’s business and the Indian conglomerate. The uncertainty over Sahara Computers’ ownership, however, lingered on.

As passionate cricket supporters struggled to come to terms with the name changes of their near-sacred cricket grounds, the Guptas decided to discharge a little public relation magic to try to win the fans’ hearts.

To help them, they formed a somewhat unlikely alliance with Graeme Smith, at the time South Africa’s national cricket captain.

At the official announcement of the deal, Sahara Computers introduced Smith as the company’s new “brand ambassador”.

His first task in his new role clearly involved convincing the cricketing public that the name changes would be good for the sport. “The players realise how important money is to the game,” Smith told the media. “Cricketers who were playing 20 years ago could not have dreamed they would be playing 20 overs a side cricket today and, if the future of Newlands is at stake in 20 years’ time, nobody is going to ask where the money comes from.”

Gary Naidoo, Sahara’s marketing director, likened the cricket star, who was 23 at the time, to the Guptas’ burgeoning computer firm: “Like us, he is young, dynamic and growing.”

The relationship between Sahara and Smith would last for the greater part of the Proteas captain’s career. In 2009, Smith released his book, A Captain’s Diary, at a function held at the Newlands cricket ground. According to a promotional board photographed at the event, Sahara was the “official book sponsor”.

In a video from the event, a somewhat obsequious Smith, not known among the sporting press for his modesty, can be seen literally bowing his head to his paymasters at Sahara.

“You just heard that the relationship (between Smith and Sahara) has been going for five years and they’ve been an integral part of those five years. To Mr Gupta (bows head) and Gary (Naidoo), thank you very much,” says Smith, standing in front of a Sahara placard.

There is a brief moment of awkwardness when Smith refers to his home ground but forgets to mention Sahara’s name: “To Western Province Cricket, who’ve obviously played a massive role in my life since I arrived here at Newlands as a young 18-year-old trying to - “Sahara Park Newlands,” interrupts an audience member.

But Smith would have plenty more opportunities to get the stadium’s name right. Naidoo, speaking before Smith, announced that Sahara had secured another five-year naming rights agreement for Newlands. He also used the opportunity to announce that Smith’s contract as Sahara brand ambassador had been extended.

Smith was not the only Proteas star roped in by the Guptas for marketing purposes.

In December 2004, teammates Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini, Boeta Dippenaar, Jacques Rudolph, Martin van Jaarsveld and Neil McKenzie all signed on to become “brand representatives” of Sahara.

By the end of 2005, the Guptas’ grip on the Proteas and CSA was so firmly established that the family managed to make significant alterations to the team’s schedule for a tour to India that November.

The sponsorship agreements between Sahara and the Proteas’ biggest stars would provide for some awkward – if not downright cringeworthy – moments.

* This is an extract from The Republic of Gupta by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, published by Penguin at a recommended retail price of R260.

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