The late Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man, who redefined cricket forever, has a contender in Sathya Sai Baba of South India.
One of a slew of Sai Baba propagandist ploys to gain international attention has been to create a world-class cricket pitch in Puttaparthi. Planners were former Indian cricket greats like Sunil Gavaskar and E.A.S. Prasanna. The inaugural event was a cricket match played at Sai Baba’s Hill View Stadium on December 30, 1997, billed as the Sri Sathya Sai Unity Cup. The trophy itself was a huge – and very real- gold cup. The international engineering giant Larsen & Toubro, with inputs from famous Indian cricketing experts, prepared the grounds, a short walk from Sai Baba’s ashram. (On the day, I was taking photos for the internationally distributed Spiritual Impressions, a magazine which I was editing along with the owner, R. Padmanaban).
Such A Thing As A Free Lunch – And Breakfast?
Somewhat like the Roman ‘pompa’, the game opened with a ‘grand’ parade. There was a brass band composed of Sai Baba’s university students. Thousands of villagers spectated from the surrounding hill. Sai Baba’s caparisoned elephant led flag-bearing devotees from many different countries from around the world, who marched around one side of the arena, coming to lay their flags at Sai Baba’s ‘feet’ in the presence of the Indian Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral, and other high government and other dignitaries. The Indian national broadcaster Doordarshan televised the match throughout, and images of the event went later to many different countries, including Great Britain via the BBC. There was free breakfast and lunch for all.
Caught and Bowled By Sai Baba
Surely there had to be a catch. But who was caught? Who was bowled? All of us – who were blinded by the pomp and ceremony created to hide the corruption. Like the Puttaparthi cover-up concerning the police killings in Sai Baba’s bedroom in June 1993. Like the serial sexual abuse of boys and young men by Sai Baba and other accomplices. Like the frequent faking of miracles. Like his forever uneventuating promised cures for dread diseases. Like the many failed predictions. Like the shameless scams practised down the years by his administration – and realised by many devotees! – relating to the purchase of apartments at his ashrams. Like the vast unaccountability of some of the billions in many currencies that flow from many countries to the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust.
Caught and bowled – all of us who thought what we called ‘the Sai Revolution’ – one of truth, goodness, peace and love – was ready to transform the world. Who else? The Indian people. Unutterably sad, that. Those who, in short, treated me with almost unimaginable and exquisite kindness in the years I lived in that country, so great in its cultural treasures, so bravely served in her fight for Independence, so profoundly betrayed by so many of her politicians. That beautiful people – but many of whom are still terribly prone to worship as demigods their cricketing greats, film stars, etc., with no less hysteria than they worship gurus, many of whom, like Sai Baba himself, prove to have feet of clay.
I saw many women, no less than the men, crazed with adulation for the Indian cricketers whose bus somehow, at a snail’s pace at times, had to chug its way out of Puttaparthi. I may add, from an impeccable source with close connections to Sai Baba’s Security Wing, that the news of those killed and injured in the immense crushes was able to be suppressed by the ashram authorities.
Attempt to Fetch Nonagenarian Sir Donald Bradman
Sai Baba’s objective – about which little if anything has flourished since – was to get the world’s top cricketers to play there. At Puttaparthi close to the time of the December 1997 match, I was at the same lunch table in the canteen as Prasanna. Hearing that I was Australian, he told me that they had asked Sir Donald Bradman to attend a match but that he declined on the grounds of ill-health. Bradman, far more the icon of Australia than Sai Baba is or ever will be of India, was the world’s greatest cricket player and died aged 92 in February 2001. The effort to draw world attention to the match was obvious. The organizers were able to go so far as to attempt to bring the terribly aged and already ailing Bradman – then in his 90’s! – to travel to India, despite all the health crises that can strike foreigners not used to its water, food, climate and so on. ‘Puttaparthi belly’ could have finished him off in a trice.
Gavaskar Bowled Out In A Fabrication
Sunil Gavaskar, the great former Indian Test captain and long-time devotee of Sathya Sai Baba, maintained a fiction about the match being genuinely international. On a piece for Sai Baba’s official website, he said:
“So, the Unity Cup was played with players from all over the world including Pakistan”:
How impressive it sounds – “from all over the world”. Pieces like this are all grist for the ceaselessly grinding mill of Dr G.Venkataraman, Sai Baba’s Dr Joseph Goebbels, who, with his team at Radio Sai, is going all out promote Sai Baba with satellite radio, Sai Global Harmony, beamed to every possible corner of the globe via the WorldSpace Corporation.
Hardly Any Nations Turned Up
The match failed to fetch players from West Indies, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, and any of the scores of nations where cricket is taken seriously. The ridiculously named ‘world XI’ was captained by Sri Lanka’s Arjuna Ranatunga. The Indian team’s captain was Sachin Tendulkar. England was slenderly represented by Doug Brown in what otherwise remained a game of Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. Pakistan sent a few players, including ‘Boom Boom’ Shahid Afridi (players from the past Hanif Mohamed and Zaheer Abbas were non-playing Pakistani guests). Sri Lanka provided six players. Former Test captain Clive Lloyd presented the trophy. India’s national broadcaster Doordarshan televised the match. In the commentator’s box was ‘Kiri’, Syed Kirmani, often hailed as India’s best ever wicket keeper, who became a Chairman of Selectors for India. He was no doubt well ‘selected’ for the day’s job at the Sri Sathya Sai Unity Cup, since he quite often dropped all objective commentary of the match being played, instead indulging in rhapsodic eulogies on Sai Baba. I saw the Doordarshan producer repeatedly directing attention of the camera crew to features of the grandiose architecture like Sai Baba’s university, the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning. Segments of the game were telecast round the world, including Great Britain.
India – or rather, one should say, Sai Baba’s propaganda machine – won the day.
There is a Spanish version available: