Set to end his tenure as Afghanistan coach after the World Cup, Phil Simmons talks about his 18-month journey with the team.
Are you nervous ahead of the big tournament?
A little bit. It is always nerve-wracking going into a World Cup. I've been to a few, but it's still the same: excitement, nervousness, anticipation, everything like that comes in to a big event.
You were Ireland coach at the 2015 World Cup. This time what is the challenge with Afghanistan?
The challenge is always to perform in the tournament because you can win how much games you want during the year, but when it comes to World Cup, you need to perform in front of millions. The pressure is an added thing, so performance is key.
Are Afghanistan in good shape on the eve of the World Cup?
We've been really good - haven't lost a series in a couple of years. And our IPL players have had a rest and they are back now. So we are in good shape.
Keeping the England conditions in mind what do you reckon are the strengths of your squad?
The strength is still going to be the bowling. The strength is still going to be the three spinners (Rashid Khan, Mujeeb ur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi). I am looking at the ODI series between England and Pakistan now and the wickets look as flat as ever. But when you have top-class spinners, they can adjust quickly and Rashid and Mujeeb can bring problems on any kind of wicket. Take the tie against India in the Asia Cup - it was the bowling that pulled us back in that game. So spin is going to be our strength, and bowling is definitely our strength.
What were the key areas that you identified that needed fixing after the World Cup Qualifier?
The main area has to been our batting: number one (priority) was not to lose wickets early on and number two was to bat with freedom. You have to score at a (minimum) average of six runs an over because in this day and age, you need minimum 300 runs to be competitive in ODIs. Watching the last few matches in England, 350 is the norm now on these pitches and smaller grounds. In the Asia Cup, we were constantly scoring around the 250-mark which was something we weren't doing against good teams before. That was the major improvement we needed to make after the World Cup Qualifier.
Afghanistan gave top teams like India tough time at the Asia Cup. In the 11 ODIs from there, Afghanistan have won five, lost four and tied one with one no result. How do you assess the progress?
The progress has been steady, with the batsmen gaining the confidence to play freely while having the ability to assess the situation from the middle. The seam bowlers are being given more responsibility even with the three main spinners in the squad.
"The team plays a bigger role now in the Afghanistan society. The team is more in the public eye than it was before. People talk about Afghanistan cricket, about Rashid and Nabi, so it has changed. There are more expectations." Afghanistan coach Phil Simmons
You said Afghanistan consistently score 250. But the Asia Cup was played on low-scoring pitches. Are you confident Afghanistan's batting unit can set or defend targets over 300?
For the conditions that we played on during the Asia Cup, 250 would be equivalent to 300 on better wickets (like) we are going to play on in the World Cup. If the wickets are as dry as they are now, we can get to anywhere close to 300, then we are going always pose problems with the spinners. The key is going to be getting to 290-300 on a consistent basis and the batsmen have started understand how to do that now.
You must have identified the key batsmen to fulfil that goal?
You have to look at the experience part of it. Numbers-wise, the No.1 batsman is Rahmat Shah. He showed that again with a 100 in the last game (against Scotland), but he needs to bat the majority of the overs. At the top you have (Mohammad) Shahzad, who scored a 100 in the Asia Cup against India which ended in a tie. So he can give a good start. In the middle order Ashghar Afghan is going to play a crucial role - he has the experience and can play a major role in these conditions.
In the lower order there is Nabi, who I am sure would be wanting to show people that in 50-over cricket his batting has improved lot and he is capable of scoring a quick fifty. Those are the main batsmen that would have to score and be at the wicket consistently and bat majority of the overs with the young ones like Hashmatullah Shahidi and Hazratullah Zazai batting around the seniors.
Has Shahzad promised anything special at the World Cup? Is he capable of batting deep?
He hasn't promised anything yet. We still have a couple of weeks for the tournament. He looks in good nick. Whether he is capable of batting deep, it depends on him. In the World Cup Qualifier, he would play a reverse sweep or something and then get out when he was batting well. So it is up to him and how he concentrates through the innings because even if he bats 20-25 overs the scoring rate is going to be high.
What about young Hazratullah Zazai? He did not play in the Asia Cup, but has played seven ODIs so far. Can he perform in the same manner against the top teams as well?
The key is to play his natural game, the one he knows. Bowlers like to be on top, so if they are controlling what you are doing, if the bowler knows you are a danger, as Zazai is, then put that pressure back on the bowler. Don't let the pressure come on himself. That's all I have been telling him and the other batsmen: just play your game, play what you know, what got you here, (that) is what is going to take you through.
Hashmatullah Shahidi is another upcoming young batsman who has been given opportunities. But his strike rate has been a concern. How are you getting the message through?
It has a lot to do with confidence, to play the shots. He can play different shots, he can hit over the top, play the cover drive, slog sweep, everything. It is a matter of having confidence to do it on the big occasion and not thinking about 'am I going to get out trying this.' We are working on different things to try and make sure he is confident in his ability to play the shots, and make him understand that we are not against him playing the shots. My message to him is: you assess the situation out there and if you think in this situation you need to go over the top then have the confidence to do it.
You've been with the side for a while. Is there better situational awareness now?
Definitely. We are not going to just play shots. There is a better understanding of how we need to just look at the scoreboard and let the scoreboard control how we play. That is one way of assessing the situation and what you need to deal with the situation. That learning and awareness is there and it keeps improving.
Is there an example you can provide?
Take the match against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup. We took the match to the last over, although we lost (by three runs). We batted the situation all through. Hashmat [Shahidi] improved his strike rate from something like 50 in 90 balls to 70 off 90 balls or something like that. It was only in the last over where we did not read the situation and hence we lost. Sometimes when you lose like that, you learn from it.
Coming to the bowling, Rashid and Mujeeb have been the highest wicket-takers from the World Cup Qualifier. Can you squeeze in Rashid, Mujeeb and Nabi consistently into the XI in English conditions?
I think so. We just hope in the World Cup it is sunny and we just get a few drier wickets. These guys are accustomed to bowling on flat wickets. It is not strange to them. Their desire to do well in this World Cup is high. The drier the wicket, the more opportunity of the ball turning, so it is an advantage for us if the batting-friendly conditions persist.
But Mujeeb was ineffective during the IPL and also picked an injury. Is he a concern?
He did not play a lot in the IPL, so that is not a concern. Once he starts playing consistently everything will get better. He will get tighter. You have to remember Mujeeb is still a young man in international cricket. He is still learning. A lot of time when Nabi and Rashid are around him, they help him with his confidence which helps him bring his game to a level where we want him to be.
"It is all about expression. From my point of view that means I go out there and I enjoy what I am doing. I am putting out everything, I am giving a 110%, I am using skills that I have. Our cricket will then be exciting." Phil Simmons
Rashid is also young, but has lot of experience. Do you think his low wicket count at the IPL will play on his mind?
The professional that Rashid is, I don't think the IPL form will play on his mind. His assessment of what he does is so good, that he would sit down and he would still come to the World Cup and take each game at a time. The relevance of not picking up wickets in the IPL will not affect him because his experience now at international level tells him that it is not every day I can take wickets and it is not every day I have to bowl to get wickets. His professionalism will carry him through this.
Do you reckon batsmen have started to figure him now?
People started to figure out (Anil) Kumble and everyone else, but they still ended up with all those wickets. The bowlers themselves need to assess the batsmen and how they assess what they want to do on the day is important. You have to make sure you have the right plans.
Rashid is also a leader, the pivot in Afghanistan, right?
He is a leader. You can see the way he does things on the field even when he is not bowling. These days he has been working a lot on his batting because he knows at some point he might be required those 20-30 runs to win a match.
The selectors sprung a surprise by recalling Hamid Hassan after three years. How does he fit into the bowling plans?
He is not going to be the Hamid Hassan of eight years back, but he has the ability to bowl in the right areas, he still has good enough pace and he still has the skills. His lengths are still immaculate; his yorkers are still top-of-the-line. It is just for his body to hold up and go through the tournament, but that is part of how we manage him. Other than experience, he has always been a wicket-taker. You need seniors like him and Dawlant (Zadran) to come in the middle overs and get wickets. Both of them along with Aftab Alam have the capability and skills to take wickets in the middle overs. Combine that with the three spinners and we are good.
The captaincy switch was a huge talking point. Were you informed of the reason?
I was home (in London) at the time. No, I was not aware of it. I was not given any reasons. It was the decision of the Afghanistan Cricket Board and the selectors.
How did you take it?
How can I take it? I can't change it. So I have just get on with what I have to do and make sure the squad is preparing in the same way I wanted them to prepare baring the (captaincy) change. I am trying to make sure the captaincy change does not have an impact on our World Cup preparation.
Managing the captaincy switch will still be a challenge, isn't it?
You can say that. Because sometimes with the pressure of the World Cup people react differently. The seniors are professional enough to make sure this does not hamper their preparation and performance.
At the 2015 World Cup, the human-interest angle formed most narratives around Afghanistan. As Full Members and one of the top-ranked T20 sides, do you think the narrative has changed?
From a cricketing point of view, yes, because their cricket is moving forward. This is Afghanistan's second 50-over World Cup. The team plays a bigger role now in the Afghanistan society. The team is more in the public eye than it was before. People talk about Afghanistan cricket, about Rashid and Nabi, so it has changed. There are more expectations.
What is the brand of cricket that you want Afghanistan to play?
It is all about expression. From my point of view that means I go out there and I enjoy what I am doing. I am putting out everything, I am giving a 110%, I am using skills that I have. Our cricket will then be exciting. Incidentally, our players will be celebrating Ramadan in the first two World Cup games I think. I have noticed the Eid period has always been a motivation for players. It would be an extra celebration in case we win those two matches.
Your contract lasts till World Cup. Do you have plans to renew it?
I have thought about it and I have actually given the ACB my notice that I will not be renewing my contract. I will move on to something different once my contract expires on July 15.
Any specific reason?
I signed up originally for 18 months and I think I have done a lot in this period. It is time for me to move on to something else now.
What was your goal when you took charge?
To get to the World Cup. That was ACB's goal at the time when they appointed me. My goal is always to leave things better than when I joined: the way we practice, the way we think about the game, the way we assess other teams. I've tried to help the players in all those areas.
Where are you heading, then?
I am going to do something in the Caribbean Premier League, one of my favourite competitions. God guides my path and we will see where he takes me.