Fare thee well Sharad Ghai, the man who revived Kenyan cricket
- Ghai died at the Aga Khan University Hospital last week.
- He was a driven man whose hunger for success blended with an innate intelligence that needed no university degree to bloom across the world’s greatest cricketing nations.
- Daxa is Ghai’s widow.
I will begin today’s column by committing journalistic sacrilege for quoting myself but I will attempt to earn your forgiveness. I ended last week’s column with this statement: “And this is the country two of whose past sports ministers have blithely told the world that we can host the Olympic Games. Lucky them: legal experts say that if you can prove a case of temporary insanity, a court would most likely let you free, however outrageous your words and deeds.”
The truth of the matter is that it is insane to imagine of hosting the Olympics only because the reins of power are perpetually in the hands of people who think small, people whose politics can never rise beyond the retail level. If the Sports Minister was Sharad Ghai, and the president of the republic gave him a free hand to do as he pleased and assume responsibility for it, we could not just have thought but actually attempted to take on that task. And most probably with success.
Ghai died at the Aga Khan University Hospital last week.
He was a driven man whose hunger for success blended with an innate intelligence that needed no university degree to bloom across the world’s greatest cricketing nations. He was a flawed genius who made millions of dollars in profits perfectly legitimately but then lost them. (The rumour is that he lost his fortune to a close relative who swindled him but I couldn’t establish the truth of it). This is a man whose example of sports marketing enterprise will last us generations to come.
He changed the architecture of Nairobi Gymkhana to conform to the standards of the mini World Cup tournament that he singlehandedly masterminded in bringing here.
Now with cricket standards at their lowest ebb, the stands and the media centre have the appearance of white elephants and those he has left behind must make tough decisions.
Ghai’s is a death that those who knew him felt profoundly about. They were reflecting on the size of his ambition. They remembered, in low tones but mostly in silence, of his accomplishments and the big “ifs” had he lived in a different social and political dispensation.
But who was Sharad Ghai? Who was this man who was mourned by people from all walks of life? What made him stand out from the rest?
Legendary cricket journalist Zoeb Tayebjee who dealt with Ghai for decades told me: “Because of the stories I wrote, I had confrontations with many officials. Some took me to court. One threatened me physically thus: ‘Zoeb, that mud you write about me in Nation, I can have your neck broken.’ But Sharad never once picked an issue with my criticism, even if I was sometimes much harder on him than those who retaliated. It is as if he was above criticism.”
This is the man who expected a rebuke after the highly successful mini World Cup in 2000 that Ghai had pulled off by telling him: “Hey, Sharad, you must have made a million dollars from this!” Instead he got: “I didn’t make a million dollars. I made 1.6 million dollars.”
Since his death, I have spoken to several lovers of Kenya sport and, despite myself, I was taken aback by the depth of their sentiments about him. I am here talking about native Africans like myself.
My old colleague, Gishinga-Njoroge called me. It’s been a while since I last spoke to him. There was a haunting tone of self-blame in his voice as he told me that: “My friend Sharad died while I was away and I’ve just arrived to find that the funeral has taken place. Anyway, I visited Daxa and she was strong although, argh….” His voice trailed and he pleaded that I write Ghai’s story for today. He had no way of knowing how hard I was struck by the distress in his tone. Daxa is Ghai’s widow.
In my remembrances with some friends, it felt good to talk openly about how our country short-changes itself by not fully utilising all the human resources at its disposal in the public arena.
One said candidly that just because of his ancestry, there was never any way Sharad Ghai was going to be chairman of the Kenya Football Federation even if he was the astute marketer who convinced Kenya Breweries to pour millions of shillings into the game. In our politics, how he looked and not his competence, nor even his character, was the disqualifier.
Sharad Ghai was born in October 1952. His birthplace is Ruiru in the northern outskirts of Nairobi. The place is famous for coffee growing. But Ghai grew up to love whiskey. Yet one of his associates told me: “I have never seen him drunk. He could hold complicated business discussions while washing down one tot after another. But he remembered each word of what he said, including the following day.”
Ghai was a bull dozer. He wanted to have his way whenever he put his mind to something. His brilliance bred the arrogance of a man who knew how to get things done. This alienated him from some people. He was ambitious. When Kenya reached the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup, he wanted Test recognition for the country. But by that time, the groundswell of jealousy at his achievements and the money he was making through his Media Plus marketing company had reached a breaking point. It was Ghai versus the rest of the cricket establishment. They wanted him out.
“If that is what they want,” he told his friend Tayebjee, “fine. I have done what I had to do.”
Sometimes people didn’t know whether to be appalled by his bulldozing ways or to admire its brilliant results. In February 2013, the internet service provider, Zuku, sponsored a tournament called Zuku Cricket Wars. A former Rift Valley Sports Club cricket player, Tirlok Varia, knowing Ghai’s capabilities, asked him to organise it for Zuku. Ghai went for it as only he could. He wanted to do it all by himself. Cricket Kenya said ‘No’ – they would be the ones to do it, since it was their mandate as the national organisation.
There was a stand-off. If you wanted to follow procedure and protocol, you would have had to side with CK. If you wanted guaranteed results, Ghai was your man. He got down to work, activating his unrivalled network of international contacts. Players such Damin Martyn and Ian Harvey from Australia and Chris Cains from New Zealand confirmed their appearance.
But CK came down hard on Ghai. They prohibited any national players from participating in the tournament – on pain of severe disciplinary action. Sri Lanka, a prize catch for Ghai, got wind of the raging controversy and pulled out. Ghai’s tournament was facing collapse when Kanbis came to his rescue with players.
The tournament was a tremendous success. It was also graced by several Bollywood television stars. CK and Ghai were now keeping each other’s distance like two ships passing in the night.
This was Ghai in his element. No other person gave the country’s cricket fans the spectacle they so craved as he did. It was during his Media Plus-organised Sameer Cup in 1996 involving Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Kenya that Shahid Afridi, making his debut for Pakistan, scored a century off 34 deliveries, including 11 6’s – a world record. It was all there before them, at the Nairobi Gymkhana.
And so back to the beginning, to the conversations with my friends. Death makes us reflect on life. We ask ourselves what lessons we can learn from the life of the departed. Like on New Year’s Day, we sometimes make powerful resolutions most of which, of course, don’t survive daybreak.
There is much beauty in the words contained in our Constitution. Unfortunately, many times, they remain just that – beautiful on paper. Removed a world away from them in our daily experiences are thoughts expressed in the most pejorative terms, like “Mzungu”, “Mhindi”, to snipe at those who do not look like us.
We use them in our living rooms and bar rooms, away from the hearing of those that we slur but they sometimes burst forth in brief moments of uncontrolled candour in traffic jams and workplaces before quickly re-submerging in our preferred world hypocritical politeness.
That is the virus in our software that denies us from being great achievers. Our problem is not lack of intellectual know-how or technical skill. Those abound.
Our problem is one of attitudes. Our prejudices. Against those, professional competences come a cropper, as they always do and our stadiums, like our railways and highways will always be built by foreigners.
Our ambition to do great things will remain unattainable. And this will continue to happen while great talent is born and dies here at home, in the possession of a neighbour who is an arm’s length away.
Last year, I had a two-hour interview with Ghai at the Nairobi Gymkhana. I wanted to do his story. He had been a famous table tennis player in my school days who went on to bring the 555 table tennis World Cup to Kenya in 1989 as an official. That achievement didn’t escape me. Then he went on to more conquests in cricket.
For one reason or another, I never got to do it. Something or the other always came up. The interview remained in my records. What I never imagined was that the occasion to do the story would present itself in the form of his death. I feel sorry about this. But I know he will read it, from beyond the horizon – this quintessential sportsman who took the rough with the smooth in the lofty spirit of the game.
Because the only absolute certainty about life is that it ends, Kenya’s sports fraternity must regretfully let Sharad Ghai go. From the day of his birth in the coffee covered hills of Ruiru 64 years ago, last Saturday at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi where he breathed his last was always getting nearer and nearer. That is how it was written for him. The day arrived.