IRELAND coach Phil Simmons has been in charge of the cricket team since March 2007 – 172 games in total.
The 49-year-old former West Indies international, who was guest of honour at the recent North West Cricket Union’s Awards night, reflected on the 2012 season both internationally and domestically ahead of the RSA Cricket Ireland Awards, which took place last weekend.
“The highlight for the team was our performances in the Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers in Dubai in March. After losing the first game to Namibia we put ourselves in a position where each game became a ‘must win’. The side responded superbly and got stronger as the event progressed, winning ten consecutive matches to not only qualify but win the competition.
“The final against Afghanistan was in many observers eyes the best game ever played between two Associates – I certainly haven’t been involved in a better one at this level.
“The innings Paul Stirling produced was nothing short of incredible. The power, placement and shot selection was breath-taking and it was a real privilege to witness it. I said at the time he has the ability to be rated with the greats of world cricket including Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag.
“I was justifiably proud of the efforts of all involved in what was a physically very demanding schedule, and to emerge victorious made me very proud to be coach of an exceptional squad.
That win saw us reach the final stages of a world event for the 5th time, and our win against Afghanistan in Dublin keeps Ireland in prime position to qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Australia.
“We had been in deep trouble at 89 for 7, but Ed Joyce played a magnificent innings making an unbeaten 67 to help us reach 164 which was enough for the win. Ed showed all his qualities and experience in that knock which could well be pivotal in the final reckoning.
“There was nobody prouder than myself when George Dockrell picked up the ICC Associate Cricketer of the Year Award. I first noticed George’s ability with the ball as a (16 year old playing for Leinster vs Clontarf and bowling his first 9 overs for 16 runs against Cusack and Poynter both national players) and then as a 17-year-old during the Under 19 World Cup qualifying tournament in Canada I was immediately impressed and fast-tracked him into the senior side three years ago and he has been an ever present since. He has a calmness and authority about his bowling and he is cool under pressure. He was our leading wicket taker during the season (37 in total) and very rarely has an off day. He and Albert van der Merwe were superb in the Intercontinental Cup win against Kenya in Mombassa. George has shown himself to be versatile in all forms of the game and he has not only done well with Ireland but also excelled in county cricket with Somerset.
“The fact that we had four of the five nominations for the ICC Associate cricketer of the year was fantastic for Irish cricket. It’s reflective of our strength at this level with so many of our side gaining recognition at a wider and higher level.
“It’s always pleasing when new faces break into the international ranks and we were extremely fortunate to have three exceptional new caps this year. Max Sorensen gives us another quick bowling option and has been incredibly consistent despite his relative inexperience at the higher level.
“Stuart Thompson is another whose all-round ability saw him perform well when given his chance. He’ll have benefitted from his time in Sri Lanka with the senior squad. James Shannon is someone for whom we have high hopes. There’s no doubting his technical ability and he has the potential to score a lot of runs for Ireland.
“It’s no secret that our vision is to become a Test playing nation by 2020 and we’ve some exciting plans in order to progress that. We need a greater depth to our cricket and hopefully the establishment of a first-class structure will rectify that. There’s a great tradition of club cricket throughout Ireland and while my main focus is obviously the international side of things, I do get to see a lot of club cricket.
“The Hills were superb in clinching the Bob Kerr Irish Senior Cup, and their bowling and fielding were of the highest calibre. I had great pleasure in adjudicating the Man of the Match award, having no hesitation in choosing Naseer Shaukat.
“Donemana can feel rightly proud of the season they had, and their blend of experience and youth is one which totally fits in with my cricketing philosophy. One of the great positives about cricket is the family connections and Donemana epitomise this with Junior McBrine and his son Andrew both playing starring roles for the club.
“CIYMS deserve praise for clinching their first ever NCU title, and having achieved that can now go on to build on that success and secure further trophies. The National Cup was a great initiative by Cricket Ireland and Muckamore fully deserved their win against Balbriggan capping a superb season for the County Antrim club.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to witness some wonderful performances at domestic level and with our expanded Ireland A schedule this year, many of those got the opportunity to showcase their talent at the higher level.
“Nigel Jones had a superb season leading Civil Service North and his magnificent form saw him play in the two World Twenty/20 final games against Australia and West Indies, while Johnny Thompson’s excellent all-round campaign with Brigade saw him selected for Ireland A. John Anderson has been the epitome of consistency with Merrion and he made his senior debut following impressive displays with the ‘A’ side.
“Ireland are of course famous for their production line of young talent and I’m happy to report that it’s still very much the case. It’s easy to forget that George Dockrell is still only 20 and Paul Stirling has just turned 22, so we’ve got at least another 10-15 years with both of them.
“Of the next generation, while the Under 19’s didn’t enjoy the most successful World Cup campaign, there were still positive performances to emerge, with Tyrone Kane being one of the good news stories. To average 49 in the tournament is a sign of just how good a player he is. Peter Chase has impressed me every time I’ve seen him and he is definitely one to watch.
“Peter Eakin who is 17-years-old is another youngster for whom hopes are high. He has enjoyed great success at North Down and also played a leading role as Ireland Under 17’s won the ICC European Regional Challenge Series. At Under 15 level Jack Tector won the player of the tournament in their European competition, while to take 8 senior wickets in a club match is a quite incredible achievement.
“I was present at Bready when Ireland Women won the ICC Europe T20 World Cup Qualifier. They have impressed everyone with their dedication and commitment, and have assembled a superb squad. As well as winning at Bready, they also clinched the ECB Division 3 County Championships and T20 trophies, with Clare Shillington reaching the milestone of 100 caps, Cecelia Joyce scoring heavily and Kim Garth having a wonderful all-round campaign.
“We’re blessed in Ireland to have a brilliant array of coaching talent at all levels and it’s in my opinion why we’ve dominated in recent years. There’s an incredible amount of work being carried out in the ranks and I’m especially pleased that the coaches are being recognised in the awards. While there are hundreds of coaches at all levels the three candidates short-listed – Ted Williamson, Kamal Merchant and John Wills - are exceptional in their own respective ways.
“There’s much to be proud of in Irish cricket in the six seasons I’ve been involved. There’s been remarkable progress in professionalism both on and off the field and a sense of belief that Irish cricket is deserving of a place at the top table of world cricket. With that belief comes an expectation of success and we’ve seen in Sri Lanka just how seriously top nations now take the challenge of Ireland. This brings a new level of pressure but one which I feel we are more than capable of dealing with as we all look to take cricket in Ireland to the next level.