'Beating West Indies in '96 like a 50-year old beating Roger Federer'

Aasif KarimFormer Kenya captain Aasif Karim at the screening of Karim's: A Sporting Dynasty in New Delhi last week (IE Photo Ravi Kanojia)
Often, following his retirement from international cricket in 1999, Aasif Karim would stare out of his office and into the dead ends of the Nairobi bazaars, scratching the roof of his balding head. What worried him was, of all things for the now-prosperous Gujarati businessman, a writer's block.

Karim, Kenya's captain when he quit, couldn't come up with a suitable ending to his cricketing book. A tale that traced his and his country's steps as cricketers was warranted that much he was certain of. But all he had was a beginning.

The first chapter, he decided, would commence with his grandfather Ahmed leaving Kutch, Gujarat, to trade in Mombasa, Kenya, and never return. It would then narrate the story of his father Yusuf, a wristy batsman for Jaffery Sports Club and a tennis player who won the annual Mombasa Championships with 25 consecutive singles titles (yes, a fourth of a century).

Climax or no climax, the story was one worth a narration. "In Calcutta for the opening ceremony of the '96 World Cup, most of us were looking forward to taking autographs from the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Richie Richardson. Little did I guess that day that I would have dismissed the former if not for bad umpiring and be a part of the reason that caused one of the saddest days in the latter's life."

In their first match in Cuttack, Kenya set India a target of exactly 200. The hosts were cruising at 163/0, with Ajay Jadeja having reached his fifty and Tendulkar approaching his first World Cup century. Left arm orthodox Karim was reintroduced into the attack, immediately dismissing Jadeja. "Sachin was looking to score in singles in the 90s and I pulled the field up and placed Hitesh Modi at bat-pad. I bowled a flatter one and he got an inside edge on to his pad and straight into Hitesh's hands. The Sri Lankan umpire (KT Francis) didn't hear the edge in the noise building up for his first World Cup hundred. Even if he thought Sachin didn't nick it, he should have given him plumb LBW."

What followed over the next week was even more remarkable. Bowled out for 166 against the West Indies in Pune, the Kenyans assembled in the dressing room, jokingly betting amongst each other on just how many overs the chase would last. "Not one believed the West Indies would take more than 25 overs. I told them to get this torture done with quickly so we could go shopping," says Karim.

When Guests became hosts

In one of the greatest upsets in cricket history, the West Indies were bowled out for 93, handing Kenya their first international win. "Did I ever imagine something like that would happen? Let me put it this way. As a 50-year old, I don't dream of waking up one day and beating Roger Federer," says the man who captained Kenya's Davis Cup squad in the '80s. A week earlier, the West Indians had offered to host a dinner for the Kenyans following the Pune match. "It was one of the most embarrassing nights. We were the ones chatting, trying to make the West Indian legends feel comfortable. The guests had become hosts."

Had his career ended that day, Karim would have had a worthy conclusion for his book. But he played on and soon the highs were a lot more sporadic. Leading his side into the 1999 World Cup, Kenya lost all their group games. Karim, now 36, was forced by the administrators to call it a day.

For four long years, the forehead lengthened by each falling follicle. The phone rang in early 2003. "I couldn't believe it. The same selector who had sacked me wanted me to be part of the World Cup team. I hadn't played a competitive match since 1999. But he was adamant," he says.

Fast forward a couple of months and we meet our protagonist, wearing the green and red in Kingsmead. "There I was, too old to play cricket four years ago. Not only was I here, but Kenya had qualified for the semifinals of the World Cup," says Karim. "In front of me were the mighty Aussies. In a Super Sixes match. And behind me was a scoreboard that read: Karim: 8-6-3-3."

Chasing 175, eventual champions Australia were 109/2 in the 15th over when Karim was summoned to bowl. He dismissed Ricky Ponting for a wicket maiden in his first over, following it up with the dismissals of Darren Lehmann and Brad Hogg for a double wicket maiden in his next. The best in the business had now lost half their side for 117, unsure of beating the worst of the remaining lot.

"As I walked up to my bowling mark to bowl my ninth over, Australia needed only two runs but I was sure that I had an apt ending to my story."

And that's precisely how a 115-minute biopic titled Karims: A Sporting Dynasty concluded at a film festival screening in New Delhi last week with the Man of the Match spell of 8.2 overs, six maidens, seven runs and three wickets. "That match was the truest reflection of the era that I represented Kenya in. We lost. But somehow, it has always felt like a win."

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