WEST Indies head coach Phil Simmons was disappointed but not surprised by Ireland’s victory in the first Twenty20 international in Grenada on Wednesday evening. He has been there before, many times.
As Ireland’s most successful coach, the Trinidadian knows all about upsets after masterminding victories over England at the 2011 World Cup in Bangalore and, four year later, over West Indies in Nelson.
But then Simmons knows from personal experience that nothing is impossible – having survived a near-death experience. It was May 26, 1988 and Simmons had just brought up his 50 for the West Indians in a tour match against Gloucestershire at the County Ground, Bristol.
He was batting without a helmet in fading light – he had turned down the offer to go off because “I needed the practice” - when he lost sight of a short ball from David Lawrence and was struck on the head.
“I never saw the ball come out of his hand so pulled away. I was never unconscious at the ground and I went in a car to the hospital and only then did I become unconscious.”
His heart stopped for a short time and, once revived, the doctors decided emergency surgery was required to relieve a blood clot on the brain.
“I thank God that I was so close to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol because it is one of the leading hospitals in Europe for head injuries,” he said.
“I still keep in touch with the surgeon who saved my life, Nigel Rawlinson. He has become a good friend. Another good friend is Lawrence.
"My wife told me when I was in the hospital bed, Syd (Lawrence’s nickname) came to visit. He was holding my hand with tears running down his cheek.
"A bowler is never to blame. It's just one of those unfortunate things that happens once in every long while," he said.
"All I thought about when I came through was that I wanted to play (cricket) again. I wasn't studying all the tubes all over my body.
"That was my catalyst. I looked forward to playing cricket again and playing for the West Indies."
Remarkably, that ambition was realised less than 17 months later, in a one-day international against India in Sharjah. Simmons would go on to play another 127 ODIs, his last the World Cup match at Old Trafford against Australia in 1999 and 24 Test matches, including his only century in Melbourne in 1992, the year when he also scored three ODI hundreds in four innings.
His most successful year was 1996 when he was the Professional Cricketers’ Association player of the season as he helped Leicestershire to the county championship title and was also named as one of WIsden’s Five Cricketers of the Year.
Simmons’ coaching career got off to a false start with Zimbabwe, sacked midway through a three-year contract which led him to successfully suing the cricket board for unfair dismissal.
But Zimbabwe’s loss was Ireland’s gain and he joined his predecessor, Adrian Birrell, at the 2007 World Cup in West Indies before taking over immediately after the tournament. Simmons admitted that while Cricket Ireland knew all about him, he knew little about Irish cricket when he applied for the post.
“When I came I didn’t know Ireland had that sort of team and had no idea about Associate cricket,” he recalled.
“But I quickly realised that Ireland were producing many young talented cricketers and, of course, there were some in county cricket. Eoin Morgan went on to play for England, Ed Joyce had gone already.
“The team had done well in the Caribbean and it was time to push on. But the last five or six years were brilliant. The guys worked so hard to get to this stage and I was able to sit back and enjoy what was happening.”
The highlights were obvious, with the World Cup wins over England and, he has to admit, West Indies and in between, playing an ODI in front of a 10,000 capacity crowd in Malahide in 2013.
“I remember speaking to Warren (Deutrom, the Cricket Ireland chief executive) that day. We had both come into the job a couple of months apart and nobody would ever believe we would see that inside seven years, 10,000 people watching an Ireland-England match. But it was a preview of what Irish cricket was going to be in the future.
“As for Kev’s innings, (Kevin O’Brien’s in Bangalore when he scored the fastest World Cup century) you sat there and you couldn’t move. That was a high point, as was winning the four-day game (against Afghanistan) to win the treble in 2013.”
Simmons’ Ireland farewell proved to be the 2015 World Cup when West Indies came calling – and if there was ever any doubt that he was the coach they wanted, it was ended on February16 in New Zealand.
“Our preparation for the World Cup had been spot on,” he said. “We were here to win three games which I thought would have got us through to the quarter-finals but I didn’t cater for Pakistan beating South Africa and they went through with a better run-rate.
“The West Indies game was the catalyst. We followed up with wins against UAE and Zimbabwe but West Indies are a team that can demolish anyone else on their day and for us to chase 300 plus was the high point.
“But even against South Africa, when we conceded 400, we looked the part in the field and in the final game against Pakistan, with William (Porterfield) scoring a century, I was totally impressed by my players, the way they fronted up to the big teams.”
On his exit from Ireland, Simmons was asked for a name to watch out for and the youngster, then only 15 years old, he “put pressure on” was Josh Little.
“I have seen him play two games for his club and for a 14-15 year old he is a big boy, he has the attributes to be one of Ireland’s quick bowlers in two to three years’ time.”
That prediction came back to haunt the former Ireland coach three days ago when the young left armer, in only his 17th international, bowled the last over which beat Simmons’ T20 World champions.
Although his home Test country was the only job he would have left Ireland for, Simmons says it wasn’t a straightforward decision.
“It was tough, The first thing I had to deal with was my family (wife Jayce and daughter Paige), they live in London and this was a big change for them, but when I weighed up what I was going to do there, the call that West Indies made, I wouldn’t be here but for Windies cricket so I had to go and give something back.”
But the love affair lasted only 18 months, with Simmons sacked not because of results – they won the World T20 in 2016 - but because of differences in culture and strategic approach.
With his credentials, he was never going to be out of work for long and Afghanistan, who were elevated to ICC Full Membership status, along with Ireland, in June 2017 was his next port of call.
He oversaw their first Test match, away to India but his target was to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in England. He achieved that objective, at the expense of Ireland, winning the final Super Six game by five wickets and going to win the World Cup Qualifying tournament with victory over West Indies – both of his former teams defeated in the space of three days.
Last October, he was reappointed coach of West Indies on a four-year contract and, despite this week’s shock defeat by Ireland, he is content with the current state of West Indies cricket.
“It’s getting better,” he says, “we’re trying to improve in all aspects and all formats of the game so things seem to be good.
“The players have been surprised by the skills of the Irish but I don’t under-rate anyone. I know Ireland and Afghanistan very well and they can trouble any team on their day. So even after losing the ODI series 3-0, Ireland were never going to lie down. They deserved their win in the T20 but now it’s up to us to turn that round and win the final two games this weekend."
As he done since that almost fatal blow 32 years ago, Simmons fights on.