Ewan McKenna, Sunday Tribune
Phil Simmons is standing in a corner of the Russell Court Hotel in Dublin denying he's any taller than 6'4" when he's abruptly introduced to some Irish businessmen. The conversation glides away from its beginnings as they ask about his Trinidadian origins, and soon all the talk is of cricket and the World Cup. Thing is, it's not what he was expecting. Did he see it? Did he ever play it? Will he be in Ireland long and did he hear about our World Cup adventure? His answers tell nothing of his past, present or future. He doesn't mention his astounding one-day career with the West Indies. He neglects to inform them he was Wisden Cricketer of the Year just a decade ago. He doesn't even bring up his new role as coach of Ireland. Instead he pads away the questions in a smooth calypso tone and before long all we hear is of his love of live music, a particular and predictable affection for Rihanna and a longing to get to Croke Park at some stage.
But when the intruders finally disperse into the crowd, he smiles at the stark reminder of reality. Cricket in Ireland is still temporary and the job he has taken may have no route to victory. Uneducated people expect success quick and easy. So Phil, are you worried? "I've never been one for that emotion. You know, all the way through the ranks back home until I got to the full West Indies team it was something I enjoyed. I never found it daunting, just something that I was privileged to do, so why worry? And then of course my perspective on everything changed after Bristol in 1988."
The incident he speaks of was a tour game against Gloucestershire. With light fading late in the day, Simmons stood firm as David Lawrence charged through the murkiness. The ball he slung was quick and pitched high, catching Simmons flat on the side of his head. "I remember it all, everything is there. But it was only afterwards I realised if I was anywhere else in England I wouldn't be alive. There was a new specialist hospital in the town and how I needed it. I can still see the guys running towards me on the pitch after the ball hit me. I remember walking away and then being in a car on the way to the hospital when I began to feel my legs going, my mind going."
The blow caused a blood clot to develop on his brain and he was rushed to emergency surgery. It was remarkable he came through at all, never mind that he was back with the side four months later, facing fire from Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose on the practice ground. "It happened, that's how it was supposed to be obviously. So you leave it behind and get on and enjoy it. But at the same time that has to change you because you realise that two minutes further down the clock you might not be here. So it changes your attitude and view on life, but for the good. It's made me enjoy everything ever since and that's the case now. That's the biggest thing that came out of it. I enjoy everything I do ever since then."
Again Simmons chuckles at the irony. But you see his visage change as more recent times are brought into question. Having retired in 1999 from international cricket he went to South Africa with no regrets for a year. His first coaching role was with his home island in 2003 and then there was the controversy. Phil Simmons was appointed as coach of Zimbabwe in 2004.
The country was in chaos and he could see that on his return. Many times he'd visited in years past but the changes were obvious. It will have registered with him as well that he was employed by the man who had caused it all. "I never had anything to do with Robert Mugabe. I don't mix sport and politics, never have and I think people have been unfair. For example a lot of people who talk about not going down there for sport, they have private businesses down there, there are a lot of foreign companies there making money. So I feel no way guilty about going. In fact I went to Zimbabwe on the advice of Clive Lloyd. He was friendly with the people at the time and they wanted a coach for their academy and he recommended me.
"It was really good initially but then after a while they try to control you and if they can't do that they try to bully you and if they can't do that they try to get rid of you. I'm not one to be controlled when it comes to decisions so they realised there was no bullying to be done and tried to get rid of me. It took a while but at that time I was happy to go. But they still need to pay me what is owed to me. It was good to get out though because I was getting lazy, they would not assign me to anything. The coach they brought in had this complex about me being around the players. But I still think about the people looking after me there. I would get them food and things that are hard to come by but now they are still there."
His phone beeps and he's glad to move on. He looks at his messages, waiting for some positives regarding overseas players for the upcoming county season. No news yet and he could really do with some because he admits today is going to be tough. Already he's lost Boyd Rankin and Eoin Morgan to their English clubs and then there's the comedown to contend with. But it's still an improvement, even if the downslope is nowhere in sight. Simmons knew little about Ireland just two years ago, having been vaguely aware of the associate nations. But having been surprised by their competitiveness in the Super Eights, barring the games against yesterday's finalists, he now reckons most people are familiar with Ireland's potential.
"The more the players become role models, that is crucial. And at the same time the administration have to promote it well now it's on a high. I don't think it will be a case of beating the big teams in a couple of years, but Sri Lanka took a decade to beat anyone. Even at county level they have to play well because the papers are going to highlight it. So we all have our responsibility to get it higher."
You think people like those businessmen might recognise you by the time you've your job done here? "Well," he laughs. "It's not them I'm trying to impress. My son is 16 and back home. When I told him about the job, he looked at me with a strange face and said 'Ireland?' I'd hope at least he'll have changed his mind by the time it's over."