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Missed opportunity takes gloss off solid legacy


Ireland's World Cup campaign showed the best and worst of departing coach Phil Simmons, and the worst may have just cost Ireland a place in the last eight

Ireland's World Cup campaign showed the best and worst of departing coach Phil Simmons, and the worst may have just cost Ireland a place in the last eight

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Ireland's World Cup campaign showed the best and worst of departing coach Phil Simmons, and the worst may have just cost Ireland a place in the last eight

As he packs his suitcases in Malahide this weekend, Phil Simmons can afford one of those wide, infectious smiles he brings out when Ireland win. Eight years with Ireland, he can take great pleasure from two excellent World Cup campaigns, three qualifications for the World Twenty20 and 11 trophies in Associate events.

The recent World Cup campaign ended at the group stage, but two more full-member scalps (making nine in all under Simmons) and a strongly-pressed case for promotion means it will earn another good line on the coach's CV.

The best recent line on that document, and the one that has probably clinched him his new job, was that World Cup win over West Indies in Nelson when a stunning batting display chased down a stiff target.

But while the world marvelled at how one tiny island and its plucky players reached the brink of the quarter-finals against all odds, others railed at an opportunity lost. Just as soccer fans gripe about 2002, and rugby followers 2007, the 2015 World Cup will rankle with Irish cricket lovers. The campaign showed the best and worst of Simmons, and the worst may just have cost Ireland a place in the last eight.

Yes, he was cruelly robbed of three top bowlers in the last 18 months, but he didn't play a good hand with what he was left. Peter Chase and Craig Young have been fast-tracked for two years, sent to Australia for special training and lavishly praised by the coach when they were picked for the World Cup squad.

But insiders say the pair were seriously underprepared for the competition and then left to languish in the dug-out. They might not have got out Sarfraz Ahmed last Sunday, but we will never know because the man who picked them didn't trust them to play.

Loyalty to those who had served him well, or stubborn conservatism, call it what you will, it was also to be seen in the issue for which the coach has drawn most flak, his perseverance with Gary Wilson as wicketkeeper.

Three years ago Niall O'Brien was suspended for missing an Intercontinental Cup game to play in the Bangladesh T20 Premier League and Wilson stood in. When O'Brien returned after suspension it was made clear he wouldn't be getting the gloves, even though Wilson did not fill that role for his club, Surrey.

Simmons persisted and Wilson's blunders probably cost Ireland a win over Pakistan in 2013. It frustrated the players, and a delegation of four senior bowlers approached the management over a year ago in Abu Dhabi requesting change, to no avail. Wilson retained the gloves at this World Cup, taking four of the six chances that came his way.

The coach's loyalty has had its upside, and at various times Kevin O'Brien, William Porterfield, John Mooney and others were allowed time to get out of a dip in form. He took a lot of criticism for selecting Alex Cusack for the World Cup, but the Clontarf veteran was one of the successes Down Under.

Despite the recent evidence, Simmons has usually been willing to give youth its head, with Paul Stirling, George Dockrell and Andy McBrine all capped as teenagers. Others were less fortunate and Andrew Balbirnie had to wait five years after his first cap to become an overnight sensation.

It's no coincidence that it was the batting department which carried Ireland through the competition. "Phil is a good coach when you work with him on a one-to-one basis in the nets," one current player told the Sunday Independent. "He has a great understanding for batting."

Ed Joyce identified Simmons' high standards as a great strength. "That was very good for us, he wouldn't accept when anyone underperformed," he said. "Our attitude was excellent at the World Cup. Phil's results were amazing, and he continued our high performance levels at big tournaments."

Simmons' ability was best seen at those events when he could work full-time with all his players. Back in Ireland it was less focused and despite full-time contracts, the home-based players were left to their own devices for long periods while Simmons was at home in London, commuting to an apartment in Malahide.

His laid-back style was in contrast to his predecessor Adi Birrell's no-stone-left-unturned approach.

Simmons inherited a talented bunch - the golden generation of Eoin Morgan, the O'Briens, Porterfield, Boyd Rankin and a clutch of fine southern hemisphere recruits. Wilson, Stirling and Dockrell were well on the way to flowering too.

But would that side have achieved all it did with a different coach?

Ireland's top six, maybe seven, batsmen were all shaped in the English system but Simmons' critics charge that he has not been able to bring home-based players such as James Shannon, Stuart Thompson and Eddie Richardson to international level.

He was unlucky to lose Tim Murtagh and Rankin but then lost the plot Down Under over the best seam attack.

Simmons will be missed around the clubs, where he assiduously courted the grassroots. Usually friendly and willing to talk to anyone, even his appearances at Croke Park in a Dublin shirt helped popularise the game. He said recently that he considered himself an Irishman ("the only thing I don't have is the accent"), and there was real passion as he belted out Ireland's Call before his last game in Adelaide.

When Birrell stepped down in 2007 he insisted he wasn't the man to take Ireland to the next step, not having the international experience of Phil Simmons. Now, as his replacement folds his tent and jets off to a €225,000-a-year job in the Caribbean, Cricket Ireland will need to choose a new coach carefully - and insist he lives full-time in Ireland - as it bids to move up the ladder by targeting sides such as Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and, yes, West Indies.

"It's sad to lose Phil," Joyce added. "But it's probably the right move for him. Eight years is a long time. It's a good move for both sides."

Sunday Indo Sport