Simmons: 'It’s up to Rashid, Mujeeb to continually evolve'

Afghanistan coach, Phil Simmons, has realistic expectations from his wards. The former West Indies all-rounder opens up on a range of issues.

Phil Simmons admits that the Test match against India helped the players understand the gap between India.   -  AFP

Having seen the rise of Ireland, Phil Simmons, the former West Indies all-rounder, has been at the helm of Afghanistan's rapid rise in world cricket. Having got a taste of the big league during the mauling against India in its debut Test, Simmons has realistic expectations from his wards starting from the Asia Cup till the next year’s World Cup.

Excerpts

You are coming in after a successful tour of Ireland. What challenges do Afghanistan face looking ahead to the World Cup?

I think looking ahead to the World Cup... it’s one thing. We played in Ireland and realised that it’s different to Asia. For us, that was the good thing about that series, that we got nine months-10 months beforehand we got an idea of what the wickets are going to be like in the World Cup. We know now exactly what we have to go back and try to work on, so it was an opportunity for us to make sure that we understand that and know how we have to prepare.

A lot has happened since the last Asia Cup when Afghanistan competed as an Associate nation. Right now, what can be deemed as success?

From my point of view, any tournament you go into, you want to try and win. What we are looking at is how we play cricket and the ability to play at our best every time we go out there. If we can play at our best – not every player will be at his best every day, but once we can find three or four or five players each day at their best on a day, we know we can be competitive against each team and if they are not at their best, we can win the game. That’s what we are looking at, to be at our best; half of the team to be at our best on the day and we will take it from there.

How difficult is it now to make the players understand the challenges or pressure considering you are no longer a surprise package and are expected to win always?

I think one of the nice things about the Test match is that players now understand the gap between India, the No. 1 team in the world, and us. They know how hard we have to work to be able to get there and that has been an enormous help in how these guys train and how much it serves them to get them better. They know, this is where we are and this is how we need to work hard to be able to get there.

Rashid Khan has emerged as one of the top spinners of the world.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

What was the kind of chat you had with the team after the Test match?

There's wasn't a need of that much chat after the Test match. I think the good thing is that we understood how, what maybe I've been trying to show, the approach I've been trying to show that how you have to do. We need to work hard to be able to get up to that level and there's no fear that we won't get to that level, you know. Everything takes time, but the important thing is that work has to be done continually in order to improve.

Is Mohammad Shahzad being looked at as a specialist batsman in Tests?

In Test match and in four-day tournaments before I came, most of the time he played as a batsman. In one-day and T20 cricket, the better-balanced teams have a wicketkeeper-allrounder to accommodate a specialist bowler, so for the balance of the team, he will keep opening and keeping for a while in the shorter formats.

A word on Samiullah Shenwari. There's so much focus on Shahzad and Rashid and Nabi now, but Shenwari has been around for so long and was even crucial in the last Asia Cup campaign...

The thing is that there's a difference. A few years ago, Rahmat Shah was here as a leg-spinner and we had Dawlat (Zadran) and Shapoor (Zadran) as our main bowlers, now we have Rashid and Mujeeb. There's an evolution happening and Shenwari is still a senior player and still wants to win games for us but there's other people fighting for a place with him for a place in the middle and he has to keep fighting with them and on a day, if someone takes that position, the other guy knows that he has to maintain the position.

Shenwari’s role as a batsman is far more important now?

Well, it is because as I was saying, he was one of the main bowlers who batted and kept the team together. His bowling has actually now taken a step back, so he has to bat knowing that the bowling part doesn't help him anymore. It's hard but it shows that your team is evolving.

When you have the likes of Rashid and Mujeeb shouldering the bowling so well, as a coach is your focus more on improving the batting?

Bowlers are our strength and now we've been working very hard in trying to get the batsmen to understand that they have to [rise up and] meet the bowlers, the bowlers are not going to come down. They have to meet the bowlers. Even in the Test match, that was one of the big things. The batting has to get up there to where the bowlers are.

We want to have a batsman in the IPL for instance rather than three or two bowlers and an allrounder, although Rashid will tell me he's an allrounder. We want the data coming for our batsmen, that means our batting is getting better. That's the big focus now, making sure our batting tries to get up to the level of the bowlers.

Phil Simmons is looking forward to next year's World Cup.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

 

It's still early days in international cricket for Rashid and Mujeeb. But do you feel there is a danger of them being overexposed with the amount of T20 cricket they play all over the world?

I don't know about overexposed. You're only overexposed if you stand still. If you keep evolving, learning and improving your game, and you keep making sure you're ahead of the batsmen all around the world, you're not going to be caught. So, it’s up to them to continually evolve and make sure that they are new things so that batsmen will have to come up with new ways to play against them.

Have you personally seen any change in the way they approach cricket since their County stints? Rashid has played County, he’s played IPL, BBL, CPL. So, have you observed any difference in their approach and has that rubbed off on the rest of the group?

I think for me Rashid's biggest thing is the difference in his fitness and mental approach since he went to CPL. He looks like a total athlete now fitness-wise. And his mental approach has always been strong, but now it is about sitting and assessing what I have to do and where I have to go. Mujeeb himself has come back from that County stint and he himself has... even from IPL, you can see he's different in the way he's thinking about his bowling and impact in all aspects of his game, even his batting.

Rashid’s ball-striking ability has been underrated. Someone like Sunil Narine has been a smash hit as opening batsman. Have you ever thought of such out of the box ideas of sending him up the order?

Nah, he's doing the job we want him to do down at the bottom with the bat because when he comes in, he can get us quick runs at the end, so there's enough guys who are trying to do that at the top, so we don't need to go in that direction.

How have you personally settled into the role? It’s obviously completely different assignment to say Ireland – culturally, language-wise. How do you get along with the boys, do they understand and how do you have first-hand communication?

They totally understand what I am saying. When I first came, I (would) speak quickly. Now I have slowed down, they understand a lot more England. And the ones that understand fully they translate for the others. There's no real language barrier anymore. Remember, I did a stint as a consultant, so, when I am back now it is a lot easier for them to understand me. And cricket is in a language in itself. If I tell them this is what I want you to do, it is a language in itself.

As a coach what is your drive when you are coaching in an Associate set-up?

Trying to make sure everything gets to the level of the bigger nations. And two, beating the bigger nations. Winning games against the bigger nations, not just one-off games you win. From my point of view, it is about how we improve. At the end of the day, winning is important to me. So, if we can just start playing cricket the proper way every time we go out there... I think that's the big difference between Associate Nations and the Test playing nations. These guys playing Tests, they know that once they cross the rope, every single time they have to perform. That's something that has to worked on. That's something we've to be consistent with.

With Afghanistan's rise in the last few years, do you see more players coming through the ranks?

I think a lot of players now, because of that (rise?), know that 'If I do well, I can be there', and that gives you a lot of motivation to train harder and practice and do well. I think that's a big factor in how many players they are producing.

Have you spent time watching domestic cricket in Afghanistan?

I haven't been to Afghanistan yet. But all their three competitions are screened. The 50-over one was a couple of months ago, so I watched most of it. I've had training sessions with the youngsters, the second team, just so they know that they're right below the national team. And I am familiar with most of the players.

How much are you in touch with Under-19 team coach Andy Moles, who has himself spent a considerable amount of time in Afghanistan. Do you chat with him?

All the time, because I need his advice. He's seen all these guys from the young age. We had Wafadar in the Test match. From the time I called him up to the training camp, he said this is your next fast bowler. I've had a lot of communication with Andy. His job is not that easy one on the ground, but he's been doing really well.

Do you think the youngsters look at the success and think if they can do well, they can get away from Afghanistan?

I don't know if that's something is thought about by the youngsters. I know the fact that if I do well and I am in the national team, I will have a better life for me and my family. I don't know if going away from home is a motivation.