Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
It is almost three and a half years since Phil Simmons left the head coach role with Ireland for the only job that would have tempted him away and everything he has touched continues to turn to gold.
After winning 11 trophies in eight years with Ireland, the Trinidadian guided West Indies to World Twenty20 success during a turbulent 18 months and then, barely 10 weeks after taking on the same position with Afghanistan, they qualified for next year’s World Cup finals in England and Wales.
We met in a Belfast hotel yesterday to talk about life after Ireland, what really happened in his dream job with West Indies and just why Afghanistan have leapt ahead of Ireland since both nations were promoted to Full Membership of ICC last year.
He speaks openly and admits he did not expect Ireland to suffer such a downturn after his departure.
“The West Indies job was vacant since the previous August and my contract was finishing after the World Cup (in March) but I was never breaking that,” he begins. “But it was home, it was giving back some of what I had from West Indies. It was a hard decision but at the end of the day it was the right decision at the time.
“I thought the level (of Ireland’s success ) would keep itself. I didn’t expect a downturn. We were still having youngsters coming in and while not producing as much as we expected at the time they would have improved. I honestly didn’t expect Ireland to be so low down in T20 cricket.”
That particular downturn can be traced back to March 21, 2014 when Netherlands scored 193 in 13.5 overs to knock Ireland out of the World Twenty20. It was the last Ireland T20 match Simmons was involved in.
“Watching that day, at that point we played T20 cricket as it should be played and that was our best score and the way the guys put that total together was brilliant. But from that day, it has sometimes been hard for me to watch.”
Ironically, Simmons would be in charge of the next team to win the World Twenty20 but that was a rare highlight during his tenure with West Indies.
“It was a difficult period but at the same time enjoyable, the guys I was working with wanted success, they wanted to win things and wear the badge properly, I had no problem working with the players. But off the field nothing will change. The way the board ran it was a big part of the problem (Simmons criticised their selection policy). Since I’ve left I’m still in touch with players but I haven’t looked back and somehow I don’t see me getting back in there,” he says with a grin.
The following year, on the ICC’s recommendation, Simmons became a consultant with Afghanistan and then the coach’s job finished, he was ideally placed to take over.
“They had Dean Jones for a bit and then they asked me. At the time it seemed a good direction to go in. This team had so much prospect, excitement about them it was a no brainer.
“Everyone knows Rashid Khan is one of the most exciting players in the world right now, a few years after him you have Mujeeb and you still have the senior players Mohammad Nabi and the skipper (Ashgar Afghan) so the blend is good and there are quite a few youngsters trying to push into the team.
"The senior guys are still producing but as you see in this series there is always room for other players. We played Monday’s game without Mohammad Shahzad but the other openers need to come in and push him and that’s how we get better. (Ireland take note)."
Afghanistan’s first Test, against India in Bangalore) was over in two days but Simmons has no regrets about their initiation onto the biggest stage.
"We could have played Zimbabwe or Bangladesh and maybe taken the match to day five and drawn or even won, and then you think you are a Test cricket team. But we have been brought down to earth and we know winning the I-Cup is not close to Test cricket and there is a lot of work to be down just to get to the level of West Indies and Pakistan, never mind India and Australia at the top of the table."
But he still believes Ireland can keep pace with Afghanistan.
“Ireland doesn’t lie down and give you games. We always have to play well to beat Ireland and next year’s series (of three T20s, five ODIs and a Test Match) in February/March will be good.”