Craig Simmons is a mythical figure in the BBL. The West Australian was plucked from grade cricket at age 31 to play for the Perth Scorchers in the third BBL season, 2013-14. He made just 17 runs in his first three innings before scoring the fastest century in BBL history, at the WACA against the Adelaide Strikers. He followed that up with a stunning 112 in the semi-final against a world-class Sydney Sixers attack to help the Scorchers ultimately win their first BBL title.
Simmons then signed a three-year deal with the Strikers but only played 13 more matches in the BBL, never reaching 50 again. While he has a reputation as the fleeting shooting star of the league, his contribution to Australian domestic and grade cricket is still going, 17 years after his first-class debut.
What are your memories of how it all came about?
I was in the first year of my apprenticeship with Western Power [a major utility company in Perth]. It was a bit of a shock because I'd pretty much thought my cricket days were numbered. I think Western Australia had had a bit of a habit over the year or two previous of wanting to pick 18-19-year-old kids and giving them a bit of a crack. I was just lucky that Justin Langer came in and he wanted to reward blokes from grade cricket.
I suppose it was just right place at the right time. Having that apprenticeship probably just freed me up in my mind. I didn't really take cricket with as much pressure as I had in the past.
The first hundred was definitely my last crack. I went out there that day with a pretty open mind to just have some fun. I think I got dropped reasonably early, mishit a couple that went in the gaps, and the rest is history.
"I go out to bat now and I'm facing some 15-year-old kid who feels quick. Yet it was only six or seven years ago that I was facing some of the quickest bowlers in the world"
Rob Cassell, who you played with in the Under-19 World Cup was the Strikers bowling coach and he said they didn't pay any attention to you in the team meeting before that game. Do you remember that?
I do and it's fair enough. You look at the Scorchers team and we had some really good batsmen. It's like any team - you probably put your energy into the top three or four players who you think are probably going to win you the game, and the other guys you probably can gloss over at times. And yeah, I was lucky they didn't put any or much effort into me, and it paid off, that's for sure.
What was it like playing in front of that kind of crowd?
It was awesome. I haven't played at the new stadium [Perth Stadium], but the WACA was huge. The atmosphere there was amazing. It was a really parochial crowd, 20,000 felt like 50,000 and once you starting hitting a few out of the middle, the crowd did get up. I remember when I hit that six to bring up the hundred, the crowd noise was huge. And it was a pretty big thrill.
I think I was in a bit of shock. I probably didn't really appreciate it as much as I did afterwards. But I've seen the highlights a few times and there were certainly a lot of people on the edge of their seats, making a lot of noise. It was good fun.
Do you remember during the innings when you started to think about what you were doing or were you just going as hard as you could go?
Literally, once I got to about 40, I was just in that zone of trying to hit every ball for six. That was my thought. I don't know why I did that. You probably don't do that as a bat, but I felt like I was seeing them that well by then that I was looking to try and clear the rope every ball. And even good balls, they were still going for four or one or two. It was just one of those days where everything sort of went my way. Certainly don't have too many of them as a batsman that's for sure.
What did Langer say to you to after the innings?
After every game they would have a bit of a chat. Pump up the blokes that had done well or whatever. I remember quite fondly because he was like, "Simmo, you scored a hundred on the skinfolds yesterday, you scored a hundred on the scales today, and you scored a hundred with the bat, so it was good to bring up the 300!" I certainly wasn't in my physical peak playing, so the guys had a bit of a laugh.
Two innings later you got a hundred in the semi-final, against an attack that was Brett Lee, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Sean Abbott and Trent Copeland, and you hit 11 sixes. Was that better than the previous one?
Yeah, I always cherish that one more. The first one was literally just an all-out attack with really not much pressure. It's just a pool game, go out there and try your luck. The semi-final, I remember it, it was really tough work early. The ball was swinging a bit and the wicket was a little bit tacky, and I think I might have been six off 16 balls - so I certainly took my time. I copped a bit of stick from the Sixers players about how slow I was going, but again I was lucky enough to have blokes like Simon Katich and Adam Voges down the other end, and they're always pretty free-scoring players, so they took a bit of pressure [off].
As a player, you want to perform in the big moments. Semi-final, away ground, to get the Scorchers into a final and to go on to win was pretty big.
Do you look back at the attack, given where all those bowlers have ended up?
I do, and I certainly let blokes know who was bowling! I go out to bat now and I'm facing some 15-year-old kid who feels quick. Yet it was only six or seven years ago that I was facing some of the quickest bowlers in the world. I definitely look back on it very fondly. And again, on that day, I didn't really feel troubled after that first six overs. It was a pretty special achievement for me, that one.
"At this stage of my career I can do well with the ball without having to put in as much yards. Whereas with the batting side of it, I think once you start to get a little bit older, it does get a little bit harder"
I wondered how you felt when people were talking about how you had come from nowhere. You played your last first-class game only 18 months earlier. You made your first-class debut in 2003. You had dominated grade cricket, played a lot of List A, first-class and T20 cricket for both WA and NSW. Did all of those experiences help you in that scenario in the BBL? And secondly, were you frustrated that people had forgotten that you had had ten years in professional cricket?
It definitely helped. I was around for a long time and just not playing much cricket. I was lucky enough to be at New South Wales and get to work with blokes like Simon Katich, Michael Clarke, and some of Australia's best cricketers when they were around for New South Wales.
In terms of people saying I'd been plucked from grade cricket, it probably was a bit frustrating, but it's probably just the audience that watches the Big Bash. There's a lot of people who probably wouldn't have much to do with cricket and they would probably think, "Geez, this is amazing, they've picked some bloke who has probably hardly played any cricket at all." I think it's definitely changed over the last few seasons. People are starting to get more and more into it and the player profiles in the Big Bash are starting to get bigger and bigger. It's been a really good thing for domestic cricketers in Australia.
Playing in that title-winning season under Langer and Katich, with a great Scorchers side that featured a lot of Western Australia guys - what was that experience like?
We had a really good group of guys there and the Perth cricket community really needed a title. I think they lost the first two BBL finals. We were under a fair bit of pressure to do well, and everyone was really hungry to do well. You look at most of the players in that side and there are a fair few guys that represented Australia a fair bit.
That semi-final performance was like a final. Once we got through to the final against Hobart, we probably didn't see them as a really strong team. They had lost one of their better bowlers and I think we were really comfortable that we were going to perform well that day. We probably put in our most complete performance of the season. So yeah, it was a really good few weeks. It was good to get WA back in the cricketing limelight.
How did things change for you? You got to play in the Champions League and you also played in the Australian 50-over domestic tournament the following October for Western Australia. Did you start to reconsider going back into cricket?
I didn't at all, to be honest. I was 32-33. I was really happy with the job I had and still do now. I really enjoy my work for Western Power.
People [were] saying you're going to get opportunities in all these different T20 leagues and stuff like that. I suppose my priorities changed. I was happy to play the Big Bash and do whatever. The one-day tournament was okay, same again because it was a two- or three-week period where you could do it. But I knew on the other hand how cut-throat professional cricket can be, so I didn't really want to go through that. I had a wife and young child on the way, so for me it was about trying to keep everything as solid as possible and just playing cricket because I enjoyed playing it and I just wanted to play as much as I could.
I understand it was a tough decision to take the three-year offer from the Adelaide Strikers. How difficult was it to move away from the Scorchers after just one season?
It was really hard. My preference would definitely have been to stay with the Scorchers, but the financial differences were just ridiculous - like, it was six times the amount of money. You don't play for the money but as a 33-year-old that has put 14-15 years of effort into trying to play cricket, it was just a time where I thought, well, it's probably my time to get a little back from the game I love. Yeah, I made that decision. It probably didn't work out as well as I would have liked but I still had a pretty fun three years in Adelaide. I got to meet some pretty good people and have a bit of fun over there as well.
You obviously still loving playing. How long do you think you'll keep playing for?
I'll play for as long as I can. For me it's not necessarily just about playing first grade or second grade, I just enjoy playing cricket. If it means next year I'm playing third grade or fourth grade down the track, it's not something that really worries me, because I think for a club, if you can get older guys to keep playing and pass on experience to the younger guys, it's only going to help them. It's probably something that I encountered as a young guy, when it felt like every team you played against had three or four really experienced blokes that made your life really hard. So I'm definitely not going to leave our young blokes in the same state, by leaving them without any experience.
"My preference would definitely have been to stay with the Scorchers, but the financial differences were just ridiculous - like, it was six times the amount of money"
Are you a bowler or a batter these days?
To be honest, I prefer bowling. Because at this stage of my career I can do well with the ball without having to put in as much yards. Whereas with the batting side of it, I think once you start to get a little bit older, it does get a little bit harder. I definitely prefer being classed as a bowler, and it takes the pressure off your batting. I go out and play with a fair bit of freedom these days, which is good.
How do you view where Australian cricket has got to in terms of the development of players and the domestic competition and what needs to be done in terms of handling young guys but also rewarding grade cricketers?
I think there definitely needs to be an emphasis on grade cricket. WA went through it where they really didn't value grade cricket and people did lose a bit of faith in the system. People dropped off. Performances weren't being rewarded. I think if they can really keep that focus on, reward blokes from one level, play 2nd XI, then reward that and go forward. I think that's really the best way to go about it.
But at the end of the day sometimes you just get freak young kids who they feel it's just their time. You probably don't unearth blokes like Ricky Ponting or whoever it is if you don't take chances as well. It is a pretty fine balancing act but hopefully Australian cricket is on the right path and I think we might have a good one with Cam Green hopefully playing the first Test this week.
Final one: who do you support now?
It will always be the Scorchers for me. The Strikers was good fun and it was a good little payday, I suppose, but I'm a really parochial WA supporter in Shield cricket, one-day cricket, and the Scorchers. I'm really keen to see them do well.
I see my role now as trying to get blokes at my club up to speed as well, so hopefully in the next few years, there might be a young kid from Rockingham Mandurah who is playing at that level.
Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer based in Melbourne