It is nearly two months since Phil Simmons took charge of Afghanistan as head coach. A dominating 4-1 ODI series win against Zimbabwe gave him a good start as well as a fair understanding of the team's strengths and weaknesses. On the eve of the World Cup Qualifier opener, Simmons expands on why Afghanistan are still a work in progress, even if the numbers tag them as a favourite to qualify for the main event in 2019.
One day to go before a very important tournament for Afghanistan. Are you and the team excited or nervous, or nervously excited?
We are more nervously excited because of how important the tournament is, and because of where we want to be as a team. The nervousness comes from that. The excitement comes from just being in this competition.
A look at the numbers since the last World Cup in 2015 makes Afghanistan seem like the firm favourites: among participating teams, Afghanistan have won the most number of matches; in Rashid Khan, Dawlat Zadran and Mohammad Nabi you have three of the four most successful bowlers in this period; Rahmat Shah and Mohammad Shahzad feature among the top three batsmen... What is your own assessment?
To correct one thing, we are not the favourites. The West Indies have to be the favourites because they are the big team. As I keep saying, there are other teams involved: you don't take Netherlands lightly, you don't take Ireland lightly, you don't take Zimbabwe lightly. You go far as down as not taking Nepal lightly. Having said that, the numbers are there. It is brilliant for players to have all those numbers. [But] the numbers don't do much when we get to competition day.
The strong series win against Zimbabwe must have been a good motivator for the players heading into the Qualifier?
It was brilliant. It was not just the win. It was the way we won - that has boosted our confidence a lot and told us we have been playing good cricket. It was part of the growing excitement coming into this tournament.
What was unique about the way you won against Zimbabwe?
We won the first match easily, but then we lost the second match heavily. Coincidentally, the score was exactly the same. In the third ODI, we lifted our game, and, when were on top, we did not let Zimbabwe come back. That gave me a lot of hope and a lot of understanding that this Afghanistan team has the potential to do that to other teams too.
"To correct one thing, we are not the favourites. The West Indies have to be the favourites because they are the big team"
That was your first series as Afghanistan coach. What were the takeaways?
The main takeaway for me is that if you chalk out things the right way for them, they can improve and improve quickly. Things weren't in a good place structure-wise when Afghanistan played Ireland [in the ODI series in December, which Ireland won 2-1] where it went haywire. So what we are trying to do is to make sure things are structured in a way that we can move forward.
What was missing from the structure before you took charge?
During the Ireland series, there was no head coach in place. Speaking to the players I gathered that there was a lot of relaxation [in the dressing room] after the win in the first ODI. Ireland came back and won the series 2-1. That is what I mean by that structure. You win a game in a series and then you have to push yourself to the next level to make sure that the other team does not come back. It is little things like that we, the coaching staff, are working on with the players.
What is the strength of Afghanistan going into the Qualifier?
Afghanistan's bowling is their out-and-out strength. With the likes of Rashid and now Mujeeb Zadran in the line-up, it is a headache for most teams.
But the conditions so far in Zimbabwe - wet and seamer-friendly - are totally different to those experienced in the UAE where you beat Zimbabwe...
Yes, it has been wet, but again we have played in series where there has been dew in the night and Afghanistan have done well. Adaptation is the big thing, and we are trying to work on that aspect, that is going to be the big test for us.
In the two warm-ups you played, Afghanistan batted first in both instances. Is that a strategy the team could look to adopt in the qualifier?
It was my decision [to elect to bat in the warm-up against Netherlands]. I just wanted to bat first because in the last three matches in Sharjah, we fielded first. So I just wanted a little change, so that we get accustomed to doing both. Now that we have done both, we understand what needs to be done depending on whether we bat or field first.
"Controlled anger, controlled emotion, I think those are big things we have to work on."
One area of concern could be the batting, which remains a work in progress. All specialist batsmen failed in both warm-ups, with the lower order saving the team the blushes. Do you agree?
Every department is a work in progress, but the progress seems to be happening a little bit quicker than I anticipated, so I'm very happy with that. As far as the batsmen are considered, I have asked everyone to focus on his own strengths. If my strength is to hit the ball over the top, that is what I must do; if my strength is accumulating and sweeping and reverse-sweeping, I must use that to my advantage. Each of us has a strength and we must use that during the match - that is my message. Everybody needs to be themselves because it is something about your play that brought you to the international level and made you successful, so you have to continue improving on that strength. Everybody can't play like [Virat] Kohli. Everybody can't play like a Viv Richards.
Are Afghanistan a one-man team, as people on the outside might perceive?
I like the fact that people outside perceive that, but I don't think that is true. Now we are getting to a stage where we have few youngsters that have graduated to the senior team. We now have Mujeeb too in the ranks, who is a class act in himself. I would like the other nine teams to continue having that [one-man team] perception about Rashid. It would make our job easier.
Still, Rashid remains the main catalyst?
Rashid is tremendous. Just his understanding of his own game, his understanding of the game in itself and how he looks at the game and how he talks about it sitting on the sidelines; he thinks a lot about the game and he assesses the game really well. The biggest asset for us is all the players have tremendous respect for him. Not just for what he has done, but how he practices, how he goes about doing things on the field. That is why he is a leader.
Will Rashid be the leader for the rest of the tournament? Any update on the ill Asghar Stanikzai?
Stanikzai is a lot better, but we are not going make a decision on him till Tuesday for the rest of the tournament. Rashid will lead in the first match.
Certainly there will be desperation to win every match. But emotions will need to be controlled. How do you go about doing that?
One of things we have to work on is [mental] preparation and how we constantly put ourselves in a place where we can perform, but at the same time we have to keep that emotion in check and make sure that emotion helps. Controlled anger, controlled emotion, I think those are big things we have to work on.
What is the one thing you want the players to keep in mind as they begin the Qualifier tournament?
We can only win this if we work hard and do the things that we worked on. We are not here to qualify. We are here to win.