Kenya could have been at the ICC Champions Cup if the stakeholders were serious

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BY TOM ODHIAMBO

Not many Kenyans today would remember Aasif Karim. Not many would know who his father, Yusuf Karim was. I am not sure that even cricket enthusiasts today know Aasif’s son, Irfan Karim.

But these three men are part of a cricketing dynasty in Kenya. They have played cricket in Kenya and represented the country in different periods, formats of cricket, under different circumstance. These three – and their extended members of the Karim family – are the subject of the book, The Karims: A Sporting Dynasty (Alpha Sports Limited, 2017[The book is accompanied with a DVD of the same title]).

Irfan Karim played cricket in the pre-independence era and after Uhuru, mainly for personal enjoyment, and in local amateur competitions. He was also an accomplished tennis player who represented Kenya at the All Africa Games in 1974 in Cairo, Egypt.
This sporting streak continued in the family, with his sons, Aarif, Aasif and Altaf playing cricket, tennis and volleyball, also at different times, in different periods and for different reasons. But it is Assif who took up cricket professionally. He was later succeeded in the Kenyan national team by his son, Irfan.

For Kenyans who watched the Cricket World Cup in 2003, hosted by Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, they will remember Assif as the man who bowled fear into the hearts of the famed Australian cricket team. The Australian team is difficult to beat, even today when they aren’t ranked first in any format of the game. Then, they were hot. Indeed, they went on to win the 2003 World Cup. However, before they reached that point, they met Aasif and his fellow Kenyans in the Super Sixes. He took 3 wickets, giving away only 7 runs in 8.2 overs. He was named the Man of the Match, in a losing team! Still the Kenyans ended up playing in the semis where they lost to India, another cricket superpower.

That was a moment to savor for Kenyan cricket lovers. Although Kenyans take beating the mighty West Indies in India at the 1996 Cricket World Cup as the highest point reached in our cricketing history, that 2003 World Cup performance was quite defining, especially since some matches were played at the Gymkhana Club in Nairobi. Stakeholders in the sports sector should have capitalized on this moment to build the momentum that was set then. Yet, as Aasif Karim suggests in The Karims: A Sporting Dynasty, little was done to improve the sport. It is no wonder that Kenya performed dismally at subsequent tournaments, eventually losing its associate membership for the One Day International (ODI) in 2014, when it lost to Scotland in a World Cup qualifier.

This is why it is sad for many cricket lovers in Kenya that men like Aasif Karim – and his generation of players, the likes of Tikolo, Odumbe, Odoyo, Suji, Kamande – are hardly active in cricket beyond our borders. If Kenya had kept the momentum of 2003 going, there probably could have been a Kenyan cricket player in the Indian Premier League T20, a global crowd puller that ended in mid-May. Kenya could probably be playing at the ICC Champions Cup in England and Wales, from 1st to 18th June, this year. Although this ODI tournament is played between the top 8 ranked teams in cricket, who says Kenya wouldn’t have reached these heights by now.

What The Karims: A Sporting Dynasty reminds the reader of is that success in sports today involves more than mere amateur interest. Today soccer, hockey, rugby, athletics etc aren’t just hobbies. To produce a high performing sportsperson involves massive investments of resources – financial, infrastructure, culture, linkages etc – from the individual, the sporting fraternity and the government. Where corporate sponsors are scarce, like in Kenya, the government has to put in money and build training grounds as well as stadia for competitions and establish support systems for the athletes. Otherwise, Kenyans will continue to lag behind the rest of the world, even in sports where it has succeeded in in the past such as hockey, cricket, boxing, football, volleyball and netball.

One hopes that the energy and commitment that has made the Karims successful both on the sports filed and in business will be a lesson that Kenyans can learn from this auto/biography, not just of the family and its involvement in sports, but also of a community, all the way from Indo/Pakistan, through the colonial era, into the postcolonial period to today. This is a history of selflessness, dedication and love for sports that is rare to find today, but inspired among the younger generation, such as Aasif has done with his son.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.