Kenya arguably remains one of cricket’s biggest sleeping giants, and wicket keeper Irfan Karim one of its few leading lights.
Following the highs of an ICC Cricket World Cup semi-final in 2003, Kenya has not featured in a One Day International (ODI) since 2014. The development of cricket in Kenya has been stunted by ongoing legal troubles which has not only left an international team in a shadow of its former self, but has also meant that youth programmes have stagnated.
In 2020 however, there was an exciting new development for Kenyan cricket fans, in the form of the Simba Premier League (SPL). Despite its ultimate postponement due to the effects of the ongoing global pandemic, the SPL represented hope that elite cricket in Kenya was once again starting to emerge.
Irfan Karim has been in the national team set up in these difficult teams. Emerging Cricket recently caught up with the southpaw about his own journey and the experience he has gained on it.
Journey to international cricket
Irfan attended Braeburn Gitanga International School, where he played for the U-9, U-11 and U-13 age group teams. He reminisces about the strength of school sport in Kenya. ‘15-20 years ago, the level of sport was at a high standard and there were healthy rivalries amongst the top schools. Due to a lack of interest, the standard of sport had dropped for a period, but I am glad to say that it is on its way up again,’ he says.
Following his introduction to competitive cricket, Irfan went from strength to strength. ‘I went on to represent Kenya at the U-15, U-17 and U-19 age groups. Touring the West Indies in 2008 for the CLICO U-15 International Championship was a great experience that provided the early exposure we needed as young players,’ he notes.
‘We competed against the likes of Kraigg Brathwaite and Babar Azam. During the latter stages of this tournament, I was spontaneously given a chance (by our flexible coaches) to experiment with wicket keeping, which I have since pursued.’
Following successful stints with both the Kenyan U-19 and ‘A’ sides, Irfan was awarded a central contract in 2011. It was a precursor to travelling to the Netherlands for his first full national team tour.
After almost a decade of international cricket, he has represented Kenya over 100 times, holds the record for the fastest ODI century [balls faced] by a Kenyan, and is currently the youngest African to score an ODI century [18th youngest worldwide].
He also shares a wicketkeeping record (most T20 International dismissals in an innings) with Mohammad Shahzad, MS Dhoni and Kiplin Doriga.
University and cricket
Whilst excelling on a cricket field, Irfan wanted to pursue his academic dreams, which led him to study sports science and management at Loughborough University. He was part of the team that earned the opportunity to represent England in the 2015 Red Bull University T20 World Finals held in Dehradun, India.
‘We [Loughborough University] did exceptionally well as a squad, despite losing to defending champions South Africa (Assupol Tuks) in the final. They boasted players such as Aiden Markram and Lungi Ngidi.’
Despite facing several challenges during his time at Loughborough, Irfan eventually received a cricket scholarship and even had his rollercoaster journey documented by the university. He concluded by saying ‘It was a fitting way to end an experience that completely transformed me.’
The peaks and troughs of domestic cricket in Kenya
Irfan represents Swamibapa Cricket Club in Kenya’s domestic competition and offers detailed insights into its structure and operation. ‘Our Premier League is currently made up of eight teams, but there is a gap in the standard. The local players have the ability to transform domestic cricket, however there is a long way to go. Certain teams can afford overseas players, which does improve the standard to an extent.’
Over the course of his playing career, Irfan has seen different iterations of domestic competition played in Kenya. He elaborates that ‘Tom Sears, who was Cricket Kenya’s CEO in 2011, did a great job of introducing the East African Premier League, that involved neighbours Uganda, and attracted several international stars such as Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Sami and Abdul Razzaq.’
The tournament was surprisingly scrapped in 2014 and Irfan believes that domestic players have not had access to that level of competition since. That said, Irfan believes that ‘the 2019 Nairobi Invitational League (sponsored by Hirani Telecom) was a great initiative considering the usual domestic league was on hold. It provided valuable game time prior to our international assignments.’
He also believes that ‘the introduction of something such as the Simba Premier League will improve the standard of Kenyan cricket, provide more opportunities for the youngsters [especially], and generate interest around the country.’
Irfan suggests that ‘players who perform well domestically, and on a consistent basis should be involved in the national set up. This will give them a chance to prove themselves at a higher level.’
Irfan does not shy away from noting that ‘there have been controversial situations where players who have performed poorly in the league have been given several opportunities internationally, and not surprisingly, failed.’
National team captaincy, mentorship and the year ahead
Before the team travelled to Oman for the first round of Challenge League fixtures [towards the end of 2019], Irfan was named as the new captain of the national team. ‘As an opening batsman and wicket keeper, the added responsibility was going to be tough. Full member sides that have experimented with this tripartite responsibility, and for the most part, have not been successful either.’
Irfan’s reign as captain was short-lived. ‘It was evident that captaincy was not helping the team or myself, so I resigned shortly after we returned from Oman. Over the years, incompetent leadership on and off the field have been a major factor in our decline,’ he admits.
Irfan has now embraced a coaching role at Braeburn Gitanga and Nairobi Jaffery Sports Club. He appears enthusiastic about this responsibility and suggests that his role as a mentor and coach is to encourage kids to take up cricket (or any sport). ‘For the youngsters that are already involved at some level of cricket, I assist them to improve essential technical, mental and fitness aspects of the game. In addition, I share positive and negative experiences that I have gained so far.’
Karim speaks expectantly about Kenya’s immediate future. ‘If we can get our house in order, we have a critical year ahead. With another T20 World Cup Regional Qualifier scheduled in Uganda, and our initial goal is to advance to the Global Qualifier. In terms of the 50 over Challenge League [Group B], we need to string a few wins together to climb back up the table. Only the top team in each format will advance, meaning it will be an even greater challenge for all nations involved.’
You’re reading Emerging Cricket — brought to you by a passionate group of volunteers with a vision for cricket to be a truly global sport, and a mission to inspire passion to grow the game.
Be sure to check out our homepage for all the latest news, please subscribe for regular updates, and follow EC on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.
Don’t know where to start? Check out our features list, country profiles, and subscribe to our podcast.
Support us from US$2 a month — and get exclusive benefits, by becoming an EC Patron.