Big Phil: The man who keeps hurting us

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THOSE who were there at Harare Sports Club one sunny afternoon, 32 years ago, describe it as one of the finest ever innings witnessed at this 118-year-old iconic home of Zimbabwean cricket.

Sports Panorama with Enock Muchinjo

Zimbabwe’s attack, led by the three-pronged pace threat of Peter Rawson, Malcolm Jarvis and Eddo Brandes as well as the top-class off-spinner John Traicos — a bowling unit on its day good enough to trouble any international side — was really torn to shreds by an Afro-haired 23-year-old Trinidadian called Phil Simmons.

Young West Indies, among other teams from the leading cricketing nations prefixed “Young”, toured Zimbabwe during that era as part of the African country’s roadmap to Test status. On this particular occasion, in 1986, Zimbabwe batted first and reached what in those days was a very competitive score – a total of 268-6 built around opener Grant Paterson’s century.

But Young West Indies made short work of the target,demolishing Zimbabwe by eight wickets with 14,1 overs to spare thanks to belligerent opener Simmons, who was 166 not out, and Andy Jackman’s unbeaten 64. It was destroyer-in-chief Simmons, an absolute giant of a man, who provided the entertainment. His brutal assault included 25 fours and, it is said, two sixes that soared over mid-wicket and square leg, nearly into the State House and the other landing onto Josiah Tongogara Avenue.

“It was breath-taking stuff … and what an innings from Simmons,” reported Jahoor Omar in The Herald of October 13, 1986. “The tall 23-year-old Trinidad and Tobago batsman was simply unstoppable — an express train gone haywire who almost from word go, climbed into the forgettable Zimbabwe bowling.”

18 years after that blitzkrieg, Simmons would return to the scene of murder, this time not to devour, but to develop. It was in this country that Simmons launched his coaching career, initially coming to head the CFX National Academy and then being elevated to become Zimbabwe’s national team coach in September 2004.

His task was mammoth, inheriting a heavily depleted team of youngsters barely out of school, who had filled the gap left by the mass walkout of 15 senior white players during the infamous rebel saga. Results were disastrous, as was to be expected, and it coincided with the most tumultuous period in the history of Zimbabwean cricket.

But with cricket in the country torn apart at that time by in-fighting, it was not the results that caused Simmons’ messy fallout with Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) and subsequent sacking in August 2005.

Simmons’ undoing was involving himself in the political tussle over control of cricket in Zimbabwe.

He openly sided with a warring faction locked in bitter warfare with the then ZC chairman Peter Chingoka and managing director Ozias Bvute — who were heavily and widely blamed at the time for running down the game.

Quite daringly so, some of the individuals baying for Chingoka and Bvute’s blood were, like Simmons, employees of ZC.
They also had the full backing of the players, who a month after the West Indian was fired, signed a petition calling for the under-fire administrators to quit, and demanding their coach’s reinstatement.

Prominent amongst those fighting the system from within was the fiercely forthright Qhubekani Nkala. Q — as he was simply known to everyone — was a knowledgeable and competent cricket operations manager for ZC, an ex-Falcon schoolboy cricketer and older brother of former Zimbabwe international Mluleki Nkala.

Then in that camp were also the firebrand trio of Macsood “Max” Ebrahim, Richie Kaschula and Crispen Tsvarai — all former national selectors — alongside the very outspoken ex-administrators Ray Gripper and Charlie Robertson amongst others.
In Nkala in particular, Simmons found a trusted lieutenant and the two buddies would spend countless hours together strategising. It was whispered that Nkala, a chartered accountant by trade, would take over as MD if this group wrest control — which was never to be.

So poisoned was the environment at the time that Simmons, who did not leave Zimbabwe after he was fired, was served with a deportation notice by the country’s immigration department. The deportation request was reported in the press at that time as having been made by ZC.

Facing immediate detention and deportation, Simmons filed an urgent application at the High Court to block the ejection.
In affidavits, Jonathan Samukange, Simmons’ lawyer, laid into the chief immigration officer, saying he had “shown interest in domestic internal affairs of cricket and has allowed himself to be used by ZC who themselves are acting unconstitutionally and not following proper procedure”. Realising he was fighting a losing battle, Simmons would however leave Zimbabwe, later to be appointed coach of Ireland in 2007.

Simmons really came of age as a coach while in charge of the Irish. In his eight-year spell, he helped grow Ireland’s standing in world cricket, leaving them in 2015 as the best of the second-tier cricket playing nations.

In 2010 he returned to Zimbabwe for the first time since his unceremonious departure, as Ireland coach, giving the hosts a real scare on that tour. Ireland fought gallantly and played some very good cricket, but lost the series 2-1.

At the 2011 World Cup in India, Ireland pulled off an astonishing victory over England. And then at the next World Cup four years later, Simmons would guide the Irish to yet another shock win, this time in New Zealand against his native West Indies.

He left the Ireland job after that World Cup, accepting a three-year contract to coach the West Indies.

Simmons’ star was certainly rising and in 2016 he led the men from the Caribbean to the World Twenty20 title, reliving the trailblazing Windies team of years gone by.

But his tendency to get under the skin of those in power, as he did in Zimbabwe, would land him in trouble again.
Simmons was fired six months after that World T20 success, ending a tension-filled tenure which had also seen him being previously suspended for publicly criticising the West Indies selection policy.

In a short statement, the West Indies Cricket Board said there had been “differences in culture and strategic approach” between the two parties. But now a sought-after coach, Simmons would return to Zimbabwe again with Afghanistan at the beginning of 2017.

The vastly-improving Asians had hired him as a technical consultant, wanting to tap into his knowledge of the Zimbabwean team. It was a masterstroke, and Afghanistan defeated Zimbabwe 3-2 in an ODI series in Harare in yet another success story of the extraordinary rise of this cricket-mad but war-torn country.

And Simmons was not done with Zimbabwe.

After being appointed fulltime as head coach of Afghanistan at the end of 2017, he has hit Zimbabwe hard again.
Last week, the Afghans completed a thumping 4-1 win over Zimbabwe in an ODI series in the United Arab Emirates, on the back of a 2-0 conquest in the Twenty20 series — an outcome that has raised fresh alarm over the state of affairs in the game in this country and marked a new low.

Up next are the World Cup Qualifiers, in which Zimbabwe and Afghanistan meet in Group B at Queens Sports Club on March 6.
For both teams, though only a pool tie, this will be more like the decider on who joins pre-tournament favourites West Indies for the World Cup in England next year.

And with Bulawayo conditions likely to excite the stroke-happy Afghanistan batsmen, their recent domination over Zimbabwe and the Simmons factor, there is every reason to be worried from a Zimbabwean perspective.

Meanwhile, even as Simmons returns to Zimbabwe again, three lucrative jobs later, there is still the small matter of how he was sacked by ZC 13 years ago.

In 2015, it was reported that Simmons was demanding US$320 000 in damages from Zimbabwe for unlawful dismissal.
Simmons first dragged ZC to court in 2009 seeking compensation after he was dismissed with two years still left on his contract. The matter is now before the International Cricket Council (ICC), according to his lawyer Samkange.

Three decades on, since blasting our bowlers all around the place at Harare Sports Club in 1986, Philip Verant Simmons is still showing no mercy on Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s bowlers really received a thorough hiding from Simmons 32 years ago. But the biggest damage he can ever inflict is denying us a place at the World Cup.

It will consign Zimbabwe to the dustbin of world cricket.

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