Three years since he was removed from the position of West Indies coach after the team won the 2016 T20 World Cup, Phil Simmons returned to the job last month for a four-year stint. Simmons, fresh off his time with the 2019 CPL-winning Barbados Tridents, before which he coached Afghanistan, speaks about the challenges of taking up the reins again.
What made you want to come back?
I don't like to say "unfinished business", but there's still a lot to be done. Personally I always wanted to give back to people and where things came from. Without West Indies cricket, who knows where I'd be. So it was always nice to be able to have a chance to go back.
But it's a different regime, it's a different management. And I work for a different boss now, Jimmy Adams - a boss who wants to see West Indies cricket go far because he has played for West Indies. We think alike, and he is someone who wants to see West Indies cricket move forward at a rate of knots, as we would say. So it's good to be back.
What was the biggest problem when you left?
The way I saw the cricket going and the way I wanted it to go - a lot of people above me didn't see that and didn't want it to go the same way, so at the time it just couldn't work. And they [CWI] took the decision that somebody needed to go, and it was me. But that's life.
"Pollard is the kind of leader - if he asks you to do something, it is not something he wouldn't do or he wouldn't want to do himself"
Do you think West Indies cricket on the field suffered as a result?
Cricket has been suffering on the field for a long time, for too long.
Do you feel like now there is a clean slate and you start afresh?
Yeah, it's a clean slate. We put things on the table. I have a new captain in Kieron Pollard for white-ball cricket. Jason [Holder] is still there for Test cricket. We've got to sit down as three individuals and plan how we go forward. I have a vision for the team, the captains will have a vision for their teams. Players also have to understand it is a new slate and everybody will have to do their part for the cricket to move forward.
What do you think Pollard's biggest strength is?
A lot of people write him off. The pressure always makes him stand up. If you look at his career, every time he's under pressure, he stands up and he shows, "Look, I've had a blip but I'm back." And his experience in general - not just the knowledge but also his ability to involve all the players, and his ability to give players challenges but at the same time be on their side, that natural leadership is there. It is something that will bring a lot to the team.
What do you think his role in the team will be?
It showed in the T20Is with India. He took the reins and led in those. That's what I expect from him: that responsibility of being captain is going to make him want to always be leading from the front. He is that kind of a leader - if he asks you to do something, it is not something he wouldn't do or he wouldn't want to do himself. So I expect a lot of runs to come from him. Hopefully he doesn't get to bat where he's batting much because the top order should be performing now, because they have been around for a while in both those two forms [ODIs and T20Is].
Jason Holder has grown with the captaincy role. Now with the relief of not having to worry about leading in T20s and ODIs, it might be beneficial to him?
It might be, but it is a question he has got to answer. He's the No. 1 Test allrounder in the world. He has shown that he has learned a lot in that format, and he is going to continue to lead this team. With the experience he has now, he should be putting more pressure on a lot of the players to perform. So his role slightly changes, and he gets to relax in the other two formats because sometimes you could see that mind thinking on the field, and then when it comes to batting, the pressure is on. Now with him relaxing a little bit more in the other two formats, maybe you'll see a lot more coming from him in the Test matches.
What do you think his strength is?
Jason has shown that he can bat, but I think his bowling is the skill that he's going to make any team for. He understands how to bowl in all three formats, because we have just seen in the CPL he got the second-most or third-most wickets. So he's understanding what his bowling brings, and he knows how to bowl in each situation.
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So bowling is his stronger suit. He's going to beg to differ because he likes his batting! But I'm glad to see the batting is up there too. To score a Test hundred is unbelievable. He has to make sure that he doesn't let either one go away, but his bowling is the one that is carrying the mantle right now.
Speaking about batting, West Indies' batting is a bit of a stress to watch. Sometimes the construction of an innings - it just doesn't happen. Why is that?
For me, it's more discipline, because I think all the talent is there. It is the discipline and the assessment of how you work in the situation that you're given. Because if I'm 10 for 3, I have to bat differently than if I'm 150 for 3. So it's how you work with that situation. That comes down more to discipline in a situation, and we need to get players to understand that you have to assess it for yourself. That is going to bring the talent that we have forward. I can't come out there and tell you how to bat every ball.
"You have to get to a stage where you make guys want to do it because they are enjoying it. So it is about getting them to start enjoying batting for long periods, doing fielding drills"
Is that first on your checklist?
First on the checklist is fitness and fielding. I have said that in all my interviews for the job. I looked at the World Cup and I thought that our fielding was not even close to some of the other teams. For me, that boils down to the fact that some of the guys are not fit enough, because after 10-15 overs, 20 overs, the fielding falls away. We are sharp at the beginning, but then we fall away.
The batting I think is a lot more up here (points at head). Attitude, and how you want to bat, how many runs you want to score. When your Virat Kohlis and Kane Williamsons go out, they want to bat for long, they want to score that 150. So we have to get that attitude.
How are you going to tackle that mental aspect? Is it about man-management too?
It could be the difficult bit. You have got to get people enjoying what they are doing. Sometimes we look at fielding drills and wanting to do fielding practice as a chore. You have to get to a stage where you make guys want to do it because they are enjoying it. So it is about getting them to start enjoying batting for long periods, doing fielding drills. It is about getting that nice atmosphere around whatever you are doing.
Is there still a place for Chris Gayle? Can he still play at this level?
Anybody can play at this level. Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, they all played until 42-43. Chris wasn't available for this tour [Afghanistan series and India series]. We'll have to talk to him, see what he thinks, what we think, where we are going. But it's all in a conversation. A lot of things still have to be dealt with. We'll see where that takes us.
Earlier you spoke about Jimmy Adams. What is so special about him and his plan?
Jimmy's professionalism showed up in Kent. He had what, five years in Kent? And there's a lot to learn from there about how to build - you want to say "a brand" for lack of a better word. His thoughts, his knowledge, everything is there to help us.
The first couple of years - I have to be careful how I say this (laughs) - I don't think he was as free to do what he wants as he is now. He is getting more and more freedom, so I hope that he has the ability to express himself and put the things down that he wants to mould our cricket, show the path for our cricket. He has a lot to give, and I hope he gets a chance to express himself.
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Michael Holding said that West Indies must be careful about not letting Darren Bravo fizzle out. Are we yet to see the best of him?
I still think that's there. He's had quite a while out of international cricket, out of cricket on the whole. In a way I feel it's good that he's at home. He plays the Super50, he starts to play the four-day tournament, and gets back that love, that enjoyment of batting, that feeling that "I want to stay here and bat for two-three hours. I want to stay here and bat for the day."
Because that's what he was like before. As we said before, if you're not enjoying something, you can't do it. So I want him to go back to Super50 and start enjoying batting again. I'm sure he will come back to this level, maybe even brighter than he was before.
Can we talk about Sunil Narine? Because of his bowling-action issues we have not seen him play for West Indies regularly. What needs to be done for him to get back?
With Sunil, he's not involved because his finger is in a bad way. He turns up next week to have it assessed and know whether he needs an operation. Barring that, we would have possibly seen him back. It kept him from playing a lot of the CPL. He played the last two games in extreme pain. Mentally he's still up there. You see it in IPL, in CPL.
"T20 is not only about hitting sixes. We can beat anybody if it's just about hitting sixes"
Now that you are back, what are your expectations? What do you want to tell people to look out for?
The first thing I want to tell people is that in cricket, going from the bottom to the top, there's no miracles. So we have to be careful of what the expectation is, but at the same time, I want to make sure that we are doing things right: the way we practise, the way we field, the way we are at the game. Those are the things I'm looking to make sure start happening now. And once we put those things in place, you are going to see the team start to get better and be more consistent. That is where I want to start, but we always have to remember that we are very low down [in the team rankings], so it's going to take a while to get back to three and four and one. But with things in place we might have it quicker than we think.
The T20 World Cup is next year. Is the pressure of being defending champions weighing on you?
There's always pressure. Being defending champions just adds to the pressure. That's where we start now: the T20Is against Afghanistan, against India, are the start of the preparations for the World Cup. Preparation doesn't start in June-July, it starts now.
We've got to formulate how we play cricket. Different atmosphere, different grounds, different wickets - but if we have a formula of how we play, and we develop a formula to win T20 games, then it will transform itself to whichever part of the world we go. A lot of it is down to the captain - how he sees his team play. Because he is the one who has to adjust things on the field, he's the one who has to make things happen. So we sit down now and we make sure people understand that the defence of the title in October-November next year starts now.
Is T20 still the strongest format for West Indies?
It still is. Easily. We need to make sure that some things improve. T20 is not only about hitting sixes. We can beat anybody if it's just about hitting sixes. So we've got to make sure that in all the different aspects from singles to yorkers to fielding - it comes back to fielding again - we are as sharp as we can be. By the time we get to July-August, everything's supposed to be in place, ready for the World Cup.