Aasif Karim portrait
© Getty Images
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Feature

The master of Mombasa

From a small city in a cricketing backwater emerged Aasif Karim, a taker of big wickets

Jarrod Kimber |

Nestled in the Kaderbhoy building on Nkrumah Road is Mombasa's second ever sporting goods store, Karim's Stationery and Sports House. It was Yusuf Karim's store; tennis, cricket, running, rugby, hockey, the works.

It was a popular place to buy sporting gear. But some would come by just to meet Yusuf. Mombasa was a small town and Yusuf a big hero.

One photo is enough to understand why: hair pomaded to one side, the crisp white shirt and a striped blazer. Beside him are two trophies, one small, one gargantuan. He is handsome, in the way of TV stars of that day. He holds his tennis racket in the casual victory style, a man who doesn't need to smile to tell you he is a champion of the Mombasa Triple Crown tournament. Yusuf didn't need to tell you how good he was at anything. His chest did that. He had a commanding build and he wanted to look good. When he batted he would roll his sleeves up immaculately. Where others wore whites, he wore cream flannels.

After winning 25 consecutive crowns, he came to be known as king of the Mombasa courts. He also fathered a cricket dynasty. He has a road named after him.

After Yusuf played against the MCC, they say he was asked to play county cricket. Those who saw him bat, who saw him drive, would say, "If only he had been born in another country…"

Mombasa's Jaffery Cricket Club is a cricket outpost within a cricket outpost. Nairobi is the home and heart of Kenyan cricket, Mombasa the second city. Five hundred kilometres separate the two, but at times the distance has felt much greater.

The long and dangerous Mombasa-Nairobi road acts as a spiritual barrier. If you're from the largely Muslim Mombasa, an ancient and proud city, the loud, brash upstart Nairobi might be in your country, but it is not your city. Mombasa's people have often felt like second-class citizens in their own country.

In Kenyan cricket, this distance has been apparent. Many talented cricketers from the coast have never made the national side even though there have been occasions when the Mombasa team has been as strong as the Kenyan team. To further the alienation, Kenya often did not play as Kenya. At the 1975 World Cup, they were part of East Africa, an alliance that included Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

Aasif Karim had taken a wicket with his first ball for Kenya. The batsman was Duncan Fletcher

In 1979 the Jaffery Cricket Club was hosting Zambia Metropolitan in a tournament. To boost attendance, and chances of victory, Jaffery brought in big-name players from Nairobi, and one from another Mombasa club.

One of those was Zulfiqar Ali, a larger-than-life character. Even if he said hello to you, it was a big deal. In the '60s, he was thought to be the quickest bowler north of Rhodesia. Legend has it he once made a double-hundred before lunch in a club match. At the 1975 World Cup he took the wickets of New Zealand's Brian Hastings and England's Frank Hayes, Dennis Amiss and Tony Greig.

At the Jaffery Cricket Club one star didn't show up, but there was a boy at the ground, doubling as scorer and 12th man. He was 16, and with no one else available, they had to use him.

The over before lunch, at Zulfiqar's suggestion, the Jaffery captain brought on the boy, a spinner. The batsman was Raghuvir Patel. The boy knew who he was. All Patel had to do was see out an over from this boy with no body fat, no muscle, lots of hair and a bad teenage moustache. Patel could not have expected much, especially not Zulfiqar catching him at slip. The boy had loop.

Next in was "Tarzan" Pathan. His mother called him Yusuf Pathan Patel. His physique, large and muscled, was responsible for his nickname. Tarzan liked to hit spinners a long way. The book Zambia Sporting Scene claims he hit 16 centuries in 1963-64.

Zulfiqar took over the captaincy and decided to play on Tarzan's ego. The field was brought up, right in Tarzan's eyeline, so close they were stepping on his ego.

The boy was confused. He'd never had a field like this. He was used to being hidden at third man, an occasional 2nd XI bowler from a second city; suddenly he was on a ground full of East African cricket legends. With this field, Tarzan was always going to try and show who was in charge.

It turned out that the boy, Aasif Karim, son of Mombasa legend Yusuf Karim, was in charge. The ball spun, Tarzan was caught by a close-in fielder. The boy took another eight wickets in the match. Aasif had overcome the Mombasa-Nairobi barrier in a single game.

There are old paint cans with plants in them scattered around his backyard. Aasif wears shiny brown shoes that peek out from his flares. He is wearing the green blazer of Kenyan cricket, his hands placed awkwardly in his pockets. He doesn't look like a man about to play cricket for his country but a kid on his way to a family wedding. His face is beaming because, as he would explain in a long video interview, "it was a big, big deal to get a green blazer".

Clockwise from top: Aasif the young tennis champion; a news clip about the Karims in Yusuf's youth; Aasif with Yusuf in 1979 after winning his first senior tennis tournament, aged 16

Clockwise from top: Aasif the young tennis champion; a news clip about the Karims in Yusuf's youth; Aasif with Yusuf in 1979 after winning his first senior tennis tournament, aged 16 © Aasif Karim

Aasif was still more hair than flesh, more blazer than international cricketer when, towards the end of 1980, he was selected for Kenya's tour to Zimbabwe. He was shocked to be picked for the first game in Harare. Zimbabwe had begun explosively and he came on to bowl after nine overs. It was all one batsman and everyone knew who he was, except the 17-year-old debutant. "I just gave it my loop, he took a wild swing, got a top edge, and was caught at point." Aasif Karim had taken a wicket with his first ball for Kenya.

The batsman was Duncan Fletcher.

This is the part where the player works hard at first-class level, gets to play for his country and builds a career. For Aasif, this was when he went to play college tennis in the United States. By winning the Bjorn Borg Trophy (a prestigious junior tournament) in Kenya, he had the opportunity to travel through Europe playing junior tennis. He lost in the first round of every tournament he played, including the French Open.

The reason he went to the US was because of Hamid Faquire. A Ugandan tennis legend and massive fan of Yusuf, Faquire had moved to the US; he once referred to Yusuf as "the greatest athlete to come out of East Africa". Faquire respected Yusuf so much he organised tennis scholarships at a college in Palm Beach for his sons. The elder Aarif went first, followed by Aasif in 1981. Aasif repaid the faith with a 46-4 record.

Then came Howard University, which wanted his tennis skills. Instead Aasif went on a business scholarship to study insurance. When he wasn't studying, training or playing, he was a busboy in a restaurant. Other young cricketers worked on their game, Aasif worked on his backhand and clearing tables. He was also learning how to train as an athlete and think as a professional. He learnt how to manage time. He started endurance running. Aasif, who had never seen the inside of a gym, began a weight programme.

When he did play cricket, he represented a Washington cricket XI that toured Jamaica. Off his third ball in one game he dismissed Basil "Shotgun" Williams, a batsman with two Test hundreds.

After college, Aasif represented Kenya in the Davis Cup. But the last day of his tennis career came in 1992, when he reached the singles and doubles finals of the Kenya Open. On the same day he had a club game. Aasif decided to play all three. He turned up for the toss and then went to the singles final, which he lost. He came back to the cricket and lost, before travelling back for the doubles only to find out he was late and had forfeited.

After that he was just an insurance agent and an international cricketer.

It was probably 1988; probably because it is almost impossible to find a scorecard. There is just an old VHS tape. The bowler's face isn't visible but he rubs the ball on his hip a few times as he crouches at the top of his mark. Play is on a matting wicket and the one slip is so wide it's practically gully. The bowler takes four steps, his long arms go up and his fifth step is his delivery stride. Once perfected, it's the sort of action you could repeat for years.

The batsman is unmistakable. His sleeves are rolled up. There is no hat, just a flock of hair that looks like a helmet. His front foot is down in time and he tries to dead-bat it, but the ball kicks a little and his bat lurches towards it. The edge flies towards the wide slip and is taken inches above the ground.

People streamed into the sports store in Mombasa. They didn't want to shake the hand of the king of the Mombasa courts anymore, but the father of the cricketer who had just beaten West Indies

Dilip Vengsarkar is out, to the second ball he faces from Aasif.

Vengsarkar was part of an "Indian Stars" private team on a tour to Kenya. In an interview with Aasif on the Sepia Mutiny blog, a reader comment added more details. Zed Fazel, who has known the Karim family since childhood, wrote: "Playing for Kenya Combined against visiting Indian XI at Coast Gymkhana, Mombasa, Aasif removed Vengsarkar off 2nd ball, took Roger Binny cheaply and later removed the legendary Kapil Dev."

As an Associate, Kenya barely played any big cricket coming into the 1996 World Cup. It was no way to prepare for a match against India in India.

The great Steve Tikolo made a quick 65, but Kenya couldn't get to 200. Ajay Jadeja and Sachin Tendulkar opened the batting. The results were predictable. Aasif came on third change, almost as an afterthought. At 163 without loss, he tossed the ball up. Jadeja tried to smack him out of Cuttack but found a man in the deep: Kenya's first World Cup wicket. This isn't what Aasif talks about.

"Did you see the Sachin ball? What do you think, it was out, right?" In the many hours interviewing him, this got him most animated.

Tendulkar was cruising. On 99 he faced Aasif with a slip and silly mid-off; not quite the Tarzan field, but bold enough. The second ball of the over straightened and hit Tendulkar's pads; silly mid-off caught it. The Kenyans appealed as one, though for what was unclear. Caught bat-pad or lbw, either way he was out. The only one who didn't think so was the umpire. Aasif was not in doubt. "He should have just walked back without looking at the umpire."

Tendulkar faced a whole Aasif over and remained on 99. It wasn't the victory Aasif believed he was due, but it was nice anyway.

Kenya's fifth game was against West Indies, who were not far removed from being unofficial champions of the universe (as befits a team that included Richie Richardson, Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jimmy Adams, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Curtly Ambrose). Kenya had to fly from Patna to Delhi, then to Mumbai and finally take a bus to Pune. They didn't reach the ground until late the night before the match. They found a green pitch. "My god, these guys are going to kill us," Aasif thought.

Kenya made 166. The joke in the dressing room was how many overs West Indies would need to win. But once they took a few wickets, things changed for Kenya. "We forgot who we were playing."

The Kenya line up for the 1980-81 tour of Zimbabwe. Aasif stands second from left (top); 17-year-old Aasif bowls in Zimbabwe in 1981 as non-striker Andy Pycroft looks on (bottom)

The Kenya line up for the 1980-81 tour of Zimbabwe. Aasif stands second from left (top); 17-year-old Aasif bowls in Zimbabwe in 1981 as non-striker Andy Pycroft looks on (bottom) © Aasif Karim, The Herald

Aasif bowled eight overs unchanged: 1 for 19. West Indies never even got close. Kenya had produced the biggest upset in World Cup history, maybe in cricket history. Some said it was the biggest upset in sport history. People streamed into the sports store in Mombasa. They didn't want to shake the hand of the king of the Mombasa courts anymore, but the father of the cricketer who had just beaten West Indies.

A coffee-table book, The Karims, is in the works. Aasif wants to invite the Kenyan president to the launch. He's talking to Bollywood about a film adaptation. He has already made and financed a documentary, The Karims: A Sporting Dynasty, a two-hour film of a Shia Muslim family from Gujarat who became Kenya's first family of cricket. (Aasif's son, Irfan, has also played for Kenya. Like his father, he started in his teens. In a short career so far, he has made two ODI hundreds.)

There is also a Facebook page, a website and a YouTube collection of performances and interviews. Other than Dickie Bird, perhaps no one has collected as much about his or her own career. All of it is digitised. Aasif has old receipts, correspondence, a certificate for a golf hole-in-one, details of a 2001 charity game for the Gujarat earthquake, college handbooks, ICC dinner invites, annual-general-meeting minutes, a letter from an airline refusing a request for a free ticket to New York, dinner menus, and an old anti-doping schedule.

It would be easy to see all of this as the work of a rampant egotist who feels nobody took enough notice of his career. Part of this is true. But it is more than ego. It's also documenting history; his, his family's, and perhaps more importantly, Kenya's. When Aasif first retired after the 1999 World Cup, sports reporter Roy Gachuhi wrote:

"If it was in another country, television networks would have been awash with footage of his greatest matches. Commentators would have taken us on a journey through time reminiscing on his humble beginnings and discussing his strengths and weaknesses and giving us insights into his career from the perspective of his peers.

"If this was in another country, 20 years of sporting service at the national level might have even warranted a thank you and good luck note from the head of the government. But our country, Kenya, is different.

"Not possessing great wealth or military power, our country has not given the rest of the world much reason to take note of it. That is why a significant portion of the world's six billion citizens might have trouble placing it on a map. Of those who know it, they are likely to remember it for one of two reasons: its wildlife and its sportsmen.

"Yet the two do not even feature highly in our order of national priorities."

Other young cricketers worked on their game, Aasif worked on his backhand and clearing tables

Aasif is trying to rectify that. He launched Sports Monthly, a magazine. In a country with a professional sport structure, Aasif would have gone into cricket administration. But there is still no devoted Kenyan sports ministry (sport falls under culture and arts). Aasif is working with the government on a Sports Act. He is also hoping to start a sports film festival. He wants to launch the Safinaz Foundation, a charity aimed at helping Kenya through sports, and also to build a sports museum.

Kenyan hockey haunts Aasif. At the 1960 Olympics, Kenya finished seventh, and in 1964, sixth. Until as late as 1988, Kenya was a strong and proud hockey nation where players were treated as well as runners. Then they disappeared. Young kids aren't told about Kenya's old hockey heroes. The government isn't putting resources into hockey. If Kenyan hockey was to rise again, it would be a fluke. That is how Kenyan sport is. You have to be so good that you first defeat Kenya's apathy, and then the world.

During his afternoon prayers on the 16th of December, 2002, Aasif's phone rang. His daughter answered. Asif Padamshi, Kenya's chairman of selectors, was calling. It was Padamshi who had asked Aasif to consider retiring after the 1999 World Cup, and made it clear he would be sacked if he didn't.

Those were difficult days. The Kenyan team was divided. Former captain Maurice Odumbe had his followers. Tikolo wanted the captaincy, and had his followers. Aasif's style of saying what he thought had caught up with him after 20 years. Against the wishes of his wife, Nazneen, his family and many within the game, he quit. It took a toll on his health. During his worst days he noticed lumps on his back. His doctor believed it came from stress. Eventually Aasif rebuilt his psyche, his health and moved on.

Now Padamshi was on the phone. The pair had been friends but had barely spoken in four years.

"I need to speak to you urgently," he began.

"What is this about?" asked Aasif.

"Don't worry, can we meet?"

With his young family at Nairobi airport before leaving for the 1999 World Cup. Irfan Karim (aged seven then), who now plays for Kenya, sits at far left

With his young family at Nairobi airport before leaving for the 1999 World Cup. Irfan Karim (aged seven then), who now plays for Kenya, sits at far left © Aasif Karim

"No, sorry, I have a dinner engagement. If you want we can meet tomorrow."

"No, I don't care. I can meet you tonight, even at midnight."

Aasif was worried. Maybe his friend was in trouble. He agreed and arrived at their meeting place early that evening. Padamshi was already there.

"Look I'm going to go straight to the point. I need you back in cricket."

"To do what?"

"I need you back in the team."

"Yeah, but to do what, what role?"

"I want you to play in the team."

"Play in the team, for which tournament?"

"The World Cup."

"But I haven't even played cricket."

"No, no, no, I don't care what the scenario is, I just want you to say yes and play in the team. For me and the board, that is more than enough."

"I need you to explain what's going on."

Without Aasif in the team, things had deteriorated between the Odumbe and Tikolo camps (Tikolo was now captain). Rumours of match-fixing had surfaced (in 2004, Odumbe would be banned for five years for inappropriate contact with a bookie). Ahead of their first home World Cup, the team was on the verge of striking over pay. The selectors didn't care how rusty Aasif was. They just wanted his calming presence. They weren't asking: they were begging.

Aasif had given 20 years, virtually unpaid, to his country. He was happily retired. He knew the team didn't want him back; at best he would be a third captain, at worst, a perceived spy among the ranks. His wife did not want him to accept.

In Kenya, they often say of Aasif, "If he was born in another country, he would have played Test cricket." What they should say is, "We're lucky he wasn't born in another country."

But this was a World Cup. It wasn't a Coca Cola triangular. He would get a chance to play for his nation, in his nation, at the highest level possible. It would be his final act of service. At 10am the next morning, how could he look them in the eye and say no?

At the first player meeting after Aasif's return, he spoke against the lust for money. He admitted the board had erred in allowing the matter to drag, but argued the players couldn't suddenly expect to strong-arm them. The Kenyan board had no money. The players had been promised prize money from the event. That would have to be enough. The players ultimately saw sense and decided to play.

Now Aasif had to prove he was ready to play. His main worth had been as an Associate-slayer. Kenya had must-win games against Bangladesh and Canada; these were the games he was expecting to play. Aasif played two warm-ups as no one needed warming up more. The first was against Border. He bowled his ten overs for 20 and took two top-order wickets. The next was against Eastern Province. He bowled his ten overs for 33. Now he was the form bowler, and when Kenya started their tournament against South Africa, Aasif was in.

Kenya made 140 and were thumped by ten wickets. Aasif bowled two expensive overs and it looked like those would be his last for Kenya. He sat out the next few matches but in those, something magical happened. Kenya received a walkover after New Zealand refused to play in Nairobi. They beat Canada, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and were through to the Super Sixes. Suddenly player bonuses were much higher than expected, with more games to come.

The second Super Six game was against Zimbabwe. Win that and a semi-final was assured, meaning skyrocketing prize money. Aasif was recalled as he had a good record against Zimbabwe. He hadn't played for a month but he bowled nine overs for 20 and Kenya won by seven wickets. Aasif couldn't be dropped for the next game, the match some players feared the most.

It was hot in Durban, like the sun was sitting inches above the ground. There was no breeze. The crowd was mostly South African, with a few Aussies and a couple of Kenyans. But this was a partisan crowd, in which many supported Africa rather than South Africa.

Australia were unbeaten but not unscathed. Pakistan had them worried before Andrew Symonds saved them. England worried them before Andy Bichel saved them. New Zealand worried them before Michael Bevan and Bichel saved them. Kenya had beaten Sri Lanka; against India they had had an early chance. Perhaps, maybe, who knows?

The Kenyans on board an airport terminal bus in 1995. Karim is in the centre

The Kenyans on board an airport terminal bus in 1995. Karim is in the centre © Aasif Karim

There was a loud Kenyan fan screaming as the game started. He had two Kenyan flags and was determined to be the loudest person at the ground. He found Australian fans and told them they were going to lose.

"Kenya will win it for Africa!" he screamed.

He screamed until the 22nd, 23rd and 24th deliveries of the match, a wicket off each to Brett Lee. That made it 3 for 3 and from there on, even Tikolo's defiance never quite excited Kenyan fans, or those South Africans hoping for an upset. Kenya clawed their way to 174 for 8; it wasn't a decent total, but they had won defending less against West Indies in 1996.

Australia decided to end it as early as possible. Martin Suji conceded 36 runs in three overs, 32 in boundaries. Peter Ongondo held on slightly better, and after being hit for two boundaries in the sixth over, dismissed Matthew Hayden: 50 for 1. Tony Suji replaced his brother and went for 24 in two overs. After ten overs, Adam Gilchrist was 49 off 36. Collins Obuya came on, the great hope, the young man with the magic, who had taken five famous wickets in the famous win over Sri Lanka.

Gilchrist smashed him for four straightaway. Then he lifted one out of Durban, probably out of Africa. Tikolo was off the ground injured, so Hitesh Modi was captaining. Only when Ongondo dismissed Gilchrist in the 12th over did the game settle down. Perhaps Modi should have brought Aasif on immediately, but with the game almost over, he waited until the end of the fielding restrictions after 15 overs.

Aasif had bowled his first ball before the commentators even noticed he was on. The score was 109 for 2. At this point, the atmosphere had drained completely. Ricky Ponting and Symonds were in. Aasif's second ball turned. It bounced. It was edged. It was dropped. Ponting arched his neck to see where the ball had gone. Modi couldn't handle it quick and low to his left. Aasif stood mid-pitch, hands on head, exhaling dramatically. The crowd barely murmured.

Benaud is now describing Aasif in all his glory. Aasif is bowling to Harvey, without the knowledge that he is being discussed like a fetish

After squaring Ponting up twice more in the over, Aasif paused at the top of that short, simple run for the fifth ball. Then, step, step, step, step, delivery. Same length as the previous balls, this was quicker, and Ponting was not ready for it. It slammed into his pads, maybe too high. Aasif jumped up and down like a 12-year-old in a schoolyard and Steve Bucknor nodded.

(Ponting's name was thus added to this list of international batsmen that Aasif dismissed: Dilip Vengsarkar, Vinod Kambli, Ken Rutherford, Roger Binny, Kapil Dev, Chris Cairns, Chris Harris, Craig Spearman, Steve James, Rizwan-uz-Zaman, Shoaib Mohammad, Richard Illingworth, Jeremy Snape, Basil Williams, Mike Atherton, Peter Willey, Andy Pycroft, Alistair Campbell, Grant Flower, Akram Khan, Mark Nicholas, Brad Hogg, Murray Goodwin, Duncan Fletcher, Stuart Carlisle, Gary Kirsten, Asanka Gurusinha, Ajay Jadeja and Rahul Dravid.)

Darren Lehmann, Australia's best player of spin, comes in. He uses his feet to Aasif, and flicks to leg. They think about the single, but Obuya is too quick. Lehmann is surprised by the amount of spin next ball. "Uh oh," someone shouts into the stump mic.

On commentary, Barry Richards says that after spinning a ball so sharply, the next should be straight, searching for an edge. Aasif obliges and so does Lehmann. After nine balls, Aasif has two wickets for no runs.

In comes Brad Hogg, in that no-nonsense, earnest way, like he is running late on his mail route. He's in ahead of Damien Martyn, who has a broken finger, and Ian Harvey. Hogg leaves the first ball, and walks around the pitch. He looks nervous. Something is not right here. This is Australia, nervous against Kenya. Modi has a slip and a short leg. Aasif looks at the field and thinks, "It's like the day of Tarzan." The next ball is turned to leg but falls well short of the man under the helmet. That Kenyan man in the crowd, who had gone silent as if Gilchrist had cut out his tongue, has found his voice again.

Aasif is mid-pitch, hands on head, exhaling.

The next ball is flighted, outside off stump. It coos at Hogg, who tries to force it down the ground. All he does is mishit it, badly, to the feet of the 39-year-old insurance broker who hasn't played an international game between two World Cups. Aasif reacts quickly and clutches the ball. Two overs. Three wickets. No runs.

With team-mates Tito Odumbe and Tariq Iqbal in Bangladesh in 1995

With team-mates Tito Odumbe and Tariq Iqbal in Bangladesh in 1995 © Aasif Karim

Now you can't hear the Kenyan man in the crowd. The whole ground is screaming.

Aasif Karim has a desk, an office and employees. He has a place where he likes to eat his lunch. He has clients and a coffee mug. The desk is where he spends most of his time. From it he runs his businesses, which include an insurance firm. He is heavily involved in insurance associations. He is a leader of Muslim community groups. He is a doting father. That is the full, but fairly normal, life of a successful businessman.

Successful businessmen don't also play international sport. It is almost impossible to be successful at business without spending all your time at it. And it should be impossible to be successful at international sport while having a full life outside of it. Aasif had the help of family and friends, but he didn't have physios, dieticians, spin coaches, fitness trainers, press managers or anything that other top cricketers had through his career.

Men like Aasif do exist, but they usually leave sport early to make the most of their business interests. Aasif saw his father dominate sport like few in Kenyan history, but it took a toll on his professional life. After the 1996 World Cup, Aasif could have left as a conqueror of West Indies, the man who led his country in two sports. That is not how Aasif works. If things need to be done, Aasif does them.

That is why he continued playing while building his business career. That is why he couldn't stay retired. That is why he was out on the field playing against one of history's fiercest teams when he hadn't played an international game in close to four years.

Andrew Symonds hits back to him, but Aasif stops it with his hands, hands that send emails, sign legal papers and dip into petty cash for office birthday cakes

Aasif is having a good day, but is still short of the 4 for 7 he once took against Gibraltar. Now Harvey has joined Symonds. Symonds is having the tournament of his life. Harvey is months away from scoring the world's first domestic T20 hundred, off 50 balls.

Finally, on his 13th ball, Aasif makes his first mistake, slightly full to Symonds, who pushes down to mid-off. It is the first run off Aasif. Richie Benaud is now describing Aasif in all his glory. He and Ian Healy talk about his run-up, his height, his mastery and his fingers. Aasif is bowling to Harvey, without the knowledge that he is being discussed like a fetish. Rarely does Benaud use Aasif's name.

Aasif's 19th ball elicits a gasp from the Kenyan fielders but it dribbles off Harvey's inside edge. They steal a single. Symonds is on strike, having taken two fours off Obuya the previous over. If anyone is going to bring Karim down, it will be the passive-aggressive hitting of Symonds, too cool to be outright aggressive like Gilchrist, but keen to let the bowler know his ass can be kicked effortlessly. Immediately he shows his positivity by coming down the wicket but he can't get past mid-on.

At silly point is Tony Suji. In Kenya it is common to have silly point very square. If Aasif drops short and wide against Symonds, his cut could put Suji in mortal danger. Aasif doesn't. He's at the stumps, full and slow, shorter and quicker. Some loop, some skid. "He's a bit of an artist, this guy," says Benaud. Symonds scores no runs from five balls.

After four overs, Karim has more wickets than he has conceded runs. He takes his cap from Bucknor, claps his team-mates and discusses field placements. Harvey is in several minds facing Aasif. Generally Harvey is of one mind: "Harvey, smash." Here, he is trying to work out where he can score, whether he should score, which one is going to turn. At the other end, he and Symonds are taking boundaries easily. At Aasif's end, they're starving and sinking.

The umpire who turned fan: Steve Bucknor shakes Aasif Karim's hand during the match against Australia in Durban, 2003

The umpire who turned fan: Steve Bucknor shakes Aasif Karim's hand during the match against Australia in Durban, 2003 © Associated Press

On commentary Healy suggests the pitch might be a bit two-paced. "No, no," says Benaud. "I reckon it's the guy himself." The crowd is now watching two games. When Obuya bowls, they show no interest. When Aasif bowls, they are in a confused reverence. Almost no one knows who this man is. Someone says he plays tennis. Someone else says he's back from retirement.

Harvey jams Aasif's 32nd ball into bat and pad and it loops into the air. For the first time, Aasif looks not like a cricketer but a man freshly arrived from a conference about premiums. He doesn't get down quickly enough, the ball bounces, and when it does get to him, he fumbles it. Still, it's a maiden.

Ongondo replaces Obuya, but 12 off his over leaves ten needed for the win. Symonds is facing again. He comes down the wicket and is beaten. Symonds hits Aasif's 41st ball back to him, but he stops it with his hands, hands that send emails, sign legal papers and dip into petty cash for office birthday cakes. He wrings his hands, grimaces, and goes back to his mark. He stares at Symonds and bowls another dot. Aasif has turned the runs off; none off his last 23 balls, only two from 42.

Six runs at the other end and Australia now require four. The crowd is applauding each dot ball Aasif bowls like it's the end of a wicket-maiden. Everyone in the crowd is that screaming Kenyan fan. Aasif makes his second mistake, a full toss, but Symonds is rushing at him and not expecting it, so all he can do is hit straight to a fielder. Later in the over, Symonds hammers a short one straight to point. Bucknor shakes Aasif's hand: 48 balls for two runs and 29 since the last.

Aasif is tired. He looks each one of his 39 years. That Hogg catch feels like years ago. He is at fine leg, wishing it wasn't a rope but a fence to lean on. Everyone is applauding him, even Australian fans. No one can believe what he is doing. But Aasif, short - sharp intakes of breath - is oblivious to the legend he is becoming. His figures are up on the board: 8-6-2-3. "What a spell," says Michael Holding, as if it is the end. No one believes Harvey won't score the four runs needed at the other end.

Against the wishes of his family and many within the game, he quit. It took a toll on his health. During his worst days he noticed lumps on his back. His doctor believed it came from stress

But Harvey doesn't score off the first three balls, and Aasif starts to think he might have to bowl another. This man has given over two decades of service to his nation. For the first time, a selfish thought comes into his head: "I want Ongondo to be hit for four."

Harvey smashes the last ball of the over, but Ongondo gets a hand on it, and they only run two.

Symonds guides the first ball of Aasif's ninth over backward of point for one. This breaks Aasif's spell. It's such a simple shot, such a nothing shot. Harvey then dances down the wicket and flicks a full ball past mid-on for four. To this day, Aasif Karim can't watch that ball without being disgusted: 8.2-6-7-3.

Aasif received a standing ovation as he raised a stump to the crowd. Kenya lost the semi-final to India and he walked away for good. The best days of Kenyan cricket went with him.

It took 23 years of sweat and determination, but Aasif symbolised the golden age of Kenyan cricket. In Kenya, they often say of Aasif, "If he was born in another country, he would have played Test cricket." What they should say is, "We're lucky he wasn't born in another country."

His insurance company is called Aristocrats Insurance Brokers. It's a pompous name, but it's also the kind of class Aasif wants his company to represent. It could only be classier if it was called Aasif Karim Insurance Brokers.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo and co-director of the film Death of a Gentleman @ajarrodkimber

 

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  • POSTED BY SRIVATSAN on | August 12, 2015, 8:06 GMT

    For all the Zarwani's we have had, we also have a Aasif Karim who won hearts with an awesome spell. Nice article.

  • POSTED BY praveen on | August 10, 2015, 17:58 GMT

    Wonderful article. The description of his spell against Australia is just fantastic! Instead of wondering "if only he had been born in another country" I think fans should be happy about his stellar achievements despite the very limiting circumstances he faced. It is not money or fame or power but sheer love of sport which motivates these sportsmen from associate nations. Aasif Karim's 20+ year career is a labor of love . Wish him all the best for his efforts to promote sport in Kenya.

  • POSTED BY beautiful on | August 3, 2015, 9:09 GMT

    I met Aasif Karim in Nairobi with Subhash Modi in 2011. We talk about the World Cup 1999 when he took three wickets.

  • POSTED BY Arif on | August 3, 2015, 6:22 GMT

    Thank you Jarrod for writing such a brilliant article. Really enjoyed reading it. Congrats to Mr. Karim on a wonderful career. Anyway, upcoming Kenyan players can use his story to find inspiration and take Kenyan Cricket forward.