Aasif Karim Potrait
Aasif Karim © Getty Images

Born December 15, 1963, Aasif Karim followed his father’s shoes to pursue an exceptional career in tennis. He even represented Kenya in Davis Cup. However, as it often happens with multi-talented people, he had to discard a career in tennis and take up cricket. He played for Kenya in three World Cups, leading them in one, was extremely successful in 1996, and pulled off one of the greatest spells in World Cup cricket in 2003. Abhishek Mukherjee interviews Aasif Karim on the Karim legacy, tennis, cricket, golf, his family, and Kenyan cricket.

 The Karims are the premier sports dynasty in Kenya. Yusuf Karim was a tennis legend, while his brother Pyarali Karim was no mean player either. Yusuf’s elder son Aarif was also a competent tennis player, and the younger son Aasif went on to play both Davis Cup and World Cup Cricket for Kenya. The legacy continued to the next generation, when Irfan Karim made his debut for Kenya.

When it comes to multiple sports, however, Aasif was the biggest name in the family (did we mention he had a hole-in-one in golf as well?). CricketCountry caught up with Aasif, a star of World Cup 1996, Kenyan captain in 1999, and the man who almost pulled off a sensational victory against Australia during their dream journey in 2003.

CricketCountry (CC): Your father Yusuf won the first was the Kenyan Coast Tennis Champion for a quarter of a century. You, too, won several age-level tennis tournaments. Your uncle Pyarali was also a tennis player. How big an influence were they on you?

Aasif Karim (AK): My Dad was the biggest influence on my involvement in both tennis and cricket. He was a star in both sports. Unfortunately, I never got to see him play cricket because he gave up early due to communal politics. He had until then scored 18 centuries.

My uncle Pyarali and I played and won my first senior tournament in doubles with him in doubles with in 1979. During that tournament, I was 16 and won singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

CC: How was it, growing up with Aarif? How competitive were the Karim brothers in their younger days?

AK: He is my elder brother. We were both competitive who wanted to do well, especially with our father leading and supporting all the way with my mum.

CC: You were also into cricket, table-tennis, badminton, and long-distance track events in your school days. Why did you stick to tennis in your early days?

AK: Tennis has been a family sport especially with my father being a superstar and a huge name in the country in tennis. I love the sport to date as it needs skill and an individual game where your own ability and hard work would pave result.

CC: Talk us through the Bjorn Borg Trophy. It must have been a moment of pride…

AK: It was indeed a great moment of pride, for the top 16 junior players of the country compete for this trophy. We were the only ones regularly travelling to Nairobi from Mombasa, as almost all sports were dominated in Nairobi.

It was special for various reasons — It was a prestigious tournament away from home. Moreover, the surface was different. While we have cement courts in Mombasa, at Nairobi they have clay courts. The win also gave me the opportunity to be selected to go to Europe for the ITF Junior tournament in a French Open. It was a tour. I lost in the first round, but it was a great exposure and made me work harder in future.

CC: You were awarded a four-year tennis scholarship to Palm Beach Junior College (Lake Worth Florida), and Howard University (Washington DC). How did that happen?

AK: A friend of my dad from Uganda, Hamid Faquire, had migrated to USA after Uganda Saga. He visited Mombasa in 1978. My dad discussed our future, which involved a combination of further studies and better opportunities in tennis. He assisted in getting my elder brother a tennis scholarship to Palm Beach Junior college. I followed in 1981.

It was a two-year course, following which my brother went to university of Nevada, Reno and I went to Howard University, Washington DC.

CC: While playing tennis, you also took to cricket, playing Zimbabwe in your teens. Who motivated you to take up cricket?

AK: Cricket was a communal sport, played at the club and school. It was something you more or less get into as a kid in Kenya. I played for Mombasa Sports club in the National League in 1980 and got selected to tour Zimbabwe for Kenya the same year. I dismissed Duncan Fletcher with my first ball on debut.

CC: The Davis Cup clash against Egypt was a harsh experience. Did that make you focus on cricket more?

AK: Playing tennis, or any sport, for the country is always an honour. The loss against Egypt changed nothing. I loved the sport, but in early 1990s I had to make decision as Kenya were getting into big cricket and tennis had its own politics. One day, I was in the Kenya Open final tennis. The same day I captained my club in cricket semi-finals. I tried to be at both places, which turned out to be a disaster.

CC: Balwinder Sandhu once said that the standard of club cricket in Kenya was very high in 1980s. How did the clubs help shape Kenyan cricket in the years to come?

AK: I agree with him. After the Indian stars visited in 1988, many players were lured to play in the local league. This helped us tremendously as it was always a challenge and a motivation to do well against the big Indian names.

We had players like Sandeep Patil, Chandrakant Pandit, Pravin Amre, Salil Ankola, Sanjay Manjrekar, Balvinder Sandhu, Karsan Ghavri, and Ghulam Parkar, among others. We did learn a lot from them. The cricket season in Kenya is from June to September, when the weather in India is hot and wet, while it is pleasant here. It was ideal for the Indians to play cricket at that time in Kenya.

CC: When an Indian team visited Kenya in 1988, you managed to dismiss Dilip Vengsarkar. Take us through the dismissal.

AK: Dilip Vengsarkar was the top batsman in the world at that time. I always thrive under challenges, and am always keen to do well in anything I do. When Vengsarkar came into bat, I beat him the first ball I bowled to him. He edged the second ball and was caught in the slips. It was a special memory, and continues to remain so till date.

CC: How much exposure did Kenya have to the bigger cricket nations those days? READ: ICC Cricket World Cup 2015: Kenya’s absence felt and highlighted

AK: The exposure was very limited. Occasionally, about once a year would an overseas team visit Kenya, mostly as a holiday tour. The only major exposure we had was the Associate Trophy that took place every four years. However, it all changed after 1994, when we qualified for World Cup 1996.

CC: While you were busy oscillating between tennis and cricket, you did a hole-in-one at Mombasa Golf Club. How old is this love affair with golf?

AK: I play golf occasionally; it is not a serious matter at all. I started playing golf in 1990 as a social player in Mombasa. As a marker, putting in my first card, I got a hole in one.

CC: Kenya had earlier played in World Cup 1975 as a part of East Africa, but World Cup 1996 was a standalone incident. How big was the moment for you?

AK: World Cup I996 was a huge moment — not only for me but the entire team, including the cricket public of Kenya. We were now to rub shoulders with players, who you have either read, heard or watched through the limited television exposure we had in those days. For me it was the ultimate experience at that time. As an amateur, or even as a professional, the World Cup is always a dream.

CC: Take us through the West Indies match. 166 was a below-par score. When did you first believe you could win this?

AK: The West Indies vs Kenya match was supposed to be a formality. We had reached Pune the day before the match in the evening. In the morning, we saw that the wicket looked very green and all were concerned with the pace attack we were to face. During the lunch break we were chatting around to guess how many overs West Indies were to score the runs. Anyway, once we got Brian Lara’s wicket the sense of belief came into the whole team — that something special is going to happen for Kenya and it sure did. READ: When Pune was treated to a Kenyan Safari

CC: You had an outstanding World Cup with the ball. Your economy rate of 3.56 was better than those of Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, and Anil Kumble. What was your formula? How did you keep the opposition on a leash?

AK: One-Day cricket has changed since the 1990s. I adjusted my style of bowling accordingly. I ensured I kept a good line and hold my end with as few runs as possible and over the yearsI felt the opposition also kept an eye on my bowling due to the reputation created and felt not to risk unnecessarily. I believed in myself and worked on the batsman with my own strategy.

CC: You led Kenya in World Cup 1999. Why do you think Kenya performed worse than they did in 1996?

AK: We did not win a single match in World Cup 1999. The conditions were harsh. We could not handle the cold May weather in England. We scored more runs in 1999 than in 1996. We lost but we were generally competitive.

CC: You were, unfortunately, at the receiving end of Sachin Tendulkar’s emotional 140. How special was that innings?

AK: It was a special and emotional innings for Sachin. He had just lost his father. It was a tough moment and his innings with Rahul Dravid was very special considering the situation he was going through.

CC: In your early days you used to be an all-rounder. Why did the batting not work out in ODIs (barring that 89-run stand with Hitesh Modi)?

AK: I totally agree with you on that. In fact, I was one of the main batsmen playing for my club, having scored a lot of runs and a few centuries. I let myself down at national level. I also blame the management and the system for undermining on my batting.

CC: You quit after World Cup 1999. What prompted you to make a comeback for World Cup 2003?

AK: The board asked me to come back as there were several problems in the team and management, and the results were not very good. World cup 2003 was very important for Kenya, as there were ambitious programs ahead. My presence in the team was necessary to bring sobriety and as a senior player to balance and have better dialogue within and outside the team.

Aasif Karim made a triumphanr return to international cricket at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2003 © Getty Images
Aasif Karim made a triumphant return to international cricket at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2003 © Getty Images

CC: The spell against Australia (8.2-6-7-3) was one of its kind. Making a comeback at 39 for an Associate Nation against the world champions, that has to be one of the most special performances by a Kenyan. The Australians were in a rampant mood in that tournament. How did you manage to contain them?

AK: That match and the bowling spell are special to me, my family and friends, including many cricket-lovers all over the world. To date they remind me or remember that special day. It will continue to remain special to me. It was one of those days that I kept a very good line, with the help of the wicket and varying the pace kept the pressure on, especially after getting Ricky Ponting.

Aasif Karim finished with figures of 3 for 7 against Australia in the 2003 World Cup © Getty Images
Aasif Karim finished with figures of 3 for 7 against Australia in the 2003 World Cup © Getty Images

CC: World Cup 2003 made the cricket fraternity look at Kenya with more respect than before. Though you did not play all matches, Kenya beat Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe, and gave Australia a run for their money before losing out to India. Take us through the journey.

AK: I do not think that Kenya could have written their script better than what happened in the tournament. It was special, fantastic and confirmed Kenya’s talent and ability. We beat three Test-playing nations and New Zealand defaulted. We gave Australia a run before losing to India in the semi-final. The sense of belief of progress came after beating Sri Lanka.

Aasif Karim (Right) was adjudged the man of the match against Australia in the 2003 World Cup despite ending up on the losing side © Getty Images
Aasif Karim (Right) was adjudged the man of the match against Australia in the 2003 World Cup despite ending up on the losing side © Getty Images

CC: Do you believe ICC should have ushered Test status on to Kenya before they did on Bangladesh?

AK: In theory, yes, but I never believed that we were ever ready for Tests. We had no longer version of cricket being played, the three-day or four-day formats. There was no meaningful development structure either. Where are the players going to come from? From late 1990s our domestic cricket also got weak and the quality of professional cricketers went down too. As the saying goes “We don’t plan to fail, we fail to plan.’’ Bangladesh deserved it because they had a huge support from the Government, terrific local following, a decent development structure and a competitive domestic competition.

I feel the world has been harsh on Bangladesh after they got Test status. It does take time to come to the top level. The jump from Associates to the top level takes time for any country. History bears testimony to this. West Indies in the 1930s, and India and Pakistan till the 1970s were weak sides. Sri Lanka were only a member till 1996. Bangladesh have recently performed consistently in World Cup 2015 and the Pakistan series. One can see good progress made. There is an improved sense of belief. The support staff is good. It is important that all that is maintained for further growth.

CC: What has gone wrong after World Cup 2003? Why did Kenyan cricket go downhill from there?

AK: It will continue to remain so, unless we have

  1. A solid development structure and a significant number of youngsters in line from Under-11, 13, 15, 17, 19 to create a good leader to the next level;
  2. Quality domestic competitions;
  3. Longer version of cricket, which does not exist at the moment in Kenya
  4. A competent administration at provincial and national body
  5. Sponsors (they pull out due to incompetent administration)

CC: What do you think is the way back for Kenya from here? How can it regain the stature it had in 2003?

AK: The stakeholders need to meet and take stock on all that has happened in the last 25 years. They should then appoint an interim committee of high-calibre people to come up with a 10-year plan where domestic competition can be improved by bringing in overseas players and start Twenty20 tournaments. Once you attract big names, sponsors will come. Only this can generate public interest and bring the euphoria of cricket back in this country. Currently, cricket has no culture or anything to look forward to in Kenya.

CC: Your son Irfan is a fine batsman. How crucial a role did you play in grooming him?

AK: My wife Nazneen and I encouraged Irfan from childhood during his school cricket days. He also watched me play on television, which can inspire a son and from there he has generated interest and commitment to the sport. He is doing well currently.

CC: What about the other children, Fatema, Zainab, and Imran? Were they into sports as well?

AK: All our children have been encouraged by my wife and me. They are active in sports like netball, basketball, hockey, tennis and cricket for school teams. However, the girls did not take sports to a higher level as their interests were different. Imran is 12, and is interested more in golf and cricket. As parents we are encouraging him to play. We hope he takes up sports more seriously. However, there has never been pressure or force on any child to take up sports. It is important that one does something for themselves based on their  interest and desire.

CC: Tell us about Sports Monthly. What prompted you to start it?

AK: Sports Monthly is a sport magazine started in 2000. To date we have published 95 issues. All issues are on the web, including social media. The purpose of this magazine was to give something back to sports, as I was not keen to be into sports administration due to its constitutional structure and lack of professionalism.

During our tours, I realised the publicity and the role media played in sports and encouraging the youngsters. The following in India in media, both print and television, was huge. This was lacking in Kenya. I felt I could give my small contribution towards it. Good publicity can always encourages sportsmen and sportswomen.

Sports Monthly is the only stable sports magazine in Kenya. We are hoping to make it better with wider circulation. We are hoping to get an NGO or a corporate organization to support the magazine to take it to a new level. We have run it for 15 years to date (May 2000 to May 2015).

CC: How often do you return to Mumbai, where your father came from?

AK: I visit Mumbai occasionally. My last visit was in 2013 to Delhi for the sports film festival where The Karims — A Sporting Dynasty was nominated in Tiger Paw Sports Film Festival.

CC: Tell us more about The Karims — A Sporting Dynasty. Do you think the next generation will live up to the legacy?

AK: This is a million-dollar question. As a family, we are hoping it does. Irfan is already made a mark for the Kenya National team and Loughborough University, playing for the University MCC XI and First-Class cricket in UK. He has created a roadmap to succeed and we wish him well.

CC: What does the future have in hold for Aasif Karim?

AK: Aasif Karim has been blessed all around from playing international sports in both tennis and cricket, running a successful business enterprise, a blessed family.

The family is establishing the Safinaz Foundation in honour of my parents and my in-laws to promote sports in Kenya, social needs and education, and any other positive coming along the way.

I am blessed!

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)