Phil Simmons has now been to Zimbabwe twice since acrimoniously leaving his post as the country’s cricket coach back in 2005.
The Trinidadian first returned five years ago as head coach of Ireland for a brief ODI series. He’s back again as coaching consultant for Afghanistan, who are hoping to tap into his wealth of experience and inside knowledge of the Zimbabwean team culture during the five-match ODI series beginning on Thursday.
It’s a smart move by the cricket board of the war-torn country. Simmons, now 53, has also coached Ireland and his native West Indies. Afghanistan will play both teams after the Zimbabwe tour, and Simmons will also be part of the staff in those series.
Simmons’ short spell as Zimbabwe’s coach ended in an ugly fallout with the cricket board.
He had inherited a hugely inexperienced new squad thrown in at the deep end following the infamous sacking of 15 “rebel” senior white players in 2004. With Zimbabwe cricket torn apart by infighting in the aftermath of that rebel saga, Simmons got himself, rather naively, enthusiastically involved in a bitter fight against the new power base of the game – remnants of which are seen in the game today.
He paid the price when his contract was terminated by Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) in 2005. Even as 30 players signed a petition demanding his reinstatement, the new power-brokers in ZC were having none of it. Simmons’ time in Zimbabwe was up. He would leave the country some five months later to pursue his legal battle from his home in London.
In court papers contained in the labour dispute that’s still unresolved 12 years on, Simmons’ attorneys claim someone inside Zimbabwe (ZC) had approached immigration authorities trying to have their client deported out of the country.
Despite acrimonious circumstances of his departure, Simmons is still noticeably nostalgic about the time spent in Zimbabwe.
“No problem, let’s talk at the CFX on Monday during the warm-up game,” he says to me when we met last Saturday.
No one calls it CFX anymore. That name has fallen off over the years. When Zimbabwe was in its last years of good health, it was called the CFX National Cricket Academy after its chief sponsor, a thriving commercial bank that has since folded.
Situated in one of Harare’s plushest suburbs, the CFX Academy was a beautiful state-of-the-art facility, as good as any in the rest of the cricketing world at that time.
Simmons’ first job in Zimbabwe was there 13 years ago, as the Academy’s head coach.
The former West Indies star spent most of his time in these serene environments working out with the Academy players, who lived in a ZC-owned property a stone throw away from the ground.
He had a nice little cosy office at the back of the Academy building, an attractive thatched structure that charmed everyone who visited the facility.
The gorgeous building is no longer there.
Former Zimbabwe batsman Mark Vermeulen razed it to the ground in 2006 in an arson attack in which he was arrested, trialled and later acquitted on the grounds that he suffered psychological disorder.
Today, the entire facility is not so good to look at. The new building is a basic structure with changing rooms and a simple pavilion.
The much-liked name CFX remained a year or two after the partnership ended, but eventually died out. These days it’s just the Academy. Or the original name for the whole arena, Highlands Country Club (it has a golf course and other sporting facilities). Or as the officials like to call it now, the High Performance Centre.
This is where the warm-up game between Afghanistan and a Zimbabwe Select XI takes place before the two national teams go into battle in the main series.
As Afghanistan bat, Simmons follows proceeds from a dilapidated sitting area reserved for spectators, doing his best to hide emotions over the sorry state of his old home.
“It doesn’t look great,” he says. “The CFX building, which was a landmark of Zim cricket, doesn’t exist. The ground itself doesn’t look like it’s looked after properly. The indoor facilities aren’t working. It’s not the same as when I was here. The cricket as well hasn’t been that great. I don’t know what needs to be done to correct things. You’ve got to be in the middle to know what’s really happening. There’s always a way back, but only if you do the right things.”
Away from Zimbabwe – his return to the country is just a sideshow – Simmons has a very big job to do.
His short-term employers are on a very ambitious mission, and he is here to help them accomplish it.
Afghanistan wants to achieve Test status as early by this year, and winning such games as these against Zimbabwe will continue to put them in good stead in their quest.
They have beaten twice Zimbabwe in the two countries’ last two series, and a third consecutive victory over the Test-playing African side, and also good outings against Ireland and West Indies, will make the ICC sit up and take notice.
And while quite a number of fans in the cricketing world will argue against the immediate granting of full member status to Afghanistan, Simmons doesn’t feel the Afghans will be out of place in Test cricket if they were to be admitted now.
“No, I don’t think it’s too soon,” says Simmons. “Them and Ireland, it’s the right time for them to do it. I don’t know what the people at the ICC want, but I’m sure Afghanistan have been putting things together in the last few years.
“I only met up with the team here, but I’ve noticed that the people want success, the players want success, the organisation wants success. It will happen.”
To prove how serious they are, Afghanistan arrived in Zimbabwe over a week before their scheduled time of arrival, to give themselves time to prepare and acclimatise to the Harare conditions – in anticipation of a seam-friendly track the hosts are likely to prepare.
Simmons has been working with Afghanistan’s Indian coach Lalchand Rajput, and has declared the team ready for the Harare challenge.
“Their strength is mostly in the batting, they have top-class spinners and lately their all-round game has improved constantly,” he says.
While his focus at the moment is with Afghanistan, Simmons makes consistent reference of fellow associate team Ireland, with whom he enjoyed a successful reign with. The Irish, like Afghanistan, are desperate to become the newest Test-playing nation.
“Ireland have been ready for a while,” says Simmons. “They’ve put in the structures in their game. It’II be good for the ICC to recognise them now. When I went there, it started as hard work because we were starting out. But when we got going it wasn’t as hard as people thought because guys were prepared to work hard for what they wanted, same as Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan face a Zimbabwe side they have a psychological advantage over having dominated recent meetings between the two. But the Zimbabweans, despite their well-known woes on and off the pitch, will be a tough opponent especially in the Harare conditions.
Simmons admits they will feel some pressure.
“I think all series are important for Afghanistan and Ireland, whenever they play all eyes are on them, and this series is no different,” he says. “The pressure is on them (Afghanistan) because they are playing Zimbabwe, which is much closer to them, and not Australia. All eyes are on them more so that they’ve put in their request for Test status.”
Simmons knows all about helping teams prepare for Test cricket. As a player in the 80s, he toured with a Young West Indies side to play Zimbabwe, who had applied to the ICC to be admitted into Test cricket.
Valid questions will be raised if the foundation laid by Zimbabwe in those years, and the talent they had at that time, match what the likes of Afghanistan have now.
“Yeah, I think you can make that comparison,” says Simmons. “I played here with Young West Indies and Zimbabwe had a very good side with the likes or Peter Rawson, (Iain) Butchart, (Duncan) Fletcher; those kind of players. That work put by Zimbabwe before Test status, and Bangladesh as well, prepared them well. Afghanistan and Ireland have worked hard for a number of years now and they should be ready for that.”
The Zimbabwe-Afghanistan series might be a low-key affair to the rest of the cricketing world, but there is certainly plenty at stake for the two teams. For Zimbabwe, to avoid hitting rock bottom, and for Afghanistan, to strengthen their case for Test status.
To Simmons, the lack of interest in the games outside the two countries is down to the positions of the two teams in world cricket, something only them and their boards can correct.
“I can assure you there will be a lot of interest in Afghanistan, there will be thousands of people watching the livestream,” he says. “You can’t expect Australians to be watching Afghanistan versus Zimbabwe. But if you make it big in your own country, you generate interest in the other countries too.”
Simmons has been out of full-time employment since being fired by the West Indies board in September just six months after guiding the team to the World T20 title. And just like with Zimbabwe, it was off-field issues that rubbed authorities the wrong way. Prior to being dismissed, Simmons had been suspended on breach of contract charges after he publicly questioned the West Indies’ selection policy.
It’s quite a record of a man who has been in and out of the battles.
While in Zimbabwe, Simmons says he will take time to see his lawyer, Jonathan Samkange, to get an update on his lawsuit against ZC.
But away from it, it will also be a thoroughly enjoyable time too, as old acquaintances in Harare would expect with Phil Simmons.
“It’s great to see everyone,” he says. “I’ve seen for to five players right now and the coaches, Dougie Hondo, Walter (Chawaguta). It’s great to catch up with everyone I had a good time with.”