Colombo: Eric Simons took over from Graham Ford at a very crucial time in South African cricket. They had just lost to the Australians both away and at home and their morale was at its lowest ebb. It has been a struggle for the former international to get them back to their winning ways.
The loss in the ICC Champions Trophy will only make his job tougher ahead of the World Cup.
Simons spoke to The Telegraph before returning home Thursday night.
Following are excerpts
On his background
I started playing for Western Province in 1982 and retired in 1998. Most of my series’ were mostly during isolation. I played a few Tests during the rebel series in the 1980s. After we were readmitted in 1992, I played 23 one-day Internationals. I started as an opening bowler but could always bat at No. 6/7.
I began coaching three years ago. Western Province approached me after I retired and asked me if I could help out. I did and was associated with the academy and the B side. Later on, I took charge of the A side and the last few years I’ve been with them. From there, it was the national side and, in fact, it’s been a quick transition from player to national coach.
On how difficult it was after taking charge from Ford
Motivating the side wasn’t difficult, but I thought there were some other issues that needed to be sorted out. Psychologically, there was a lot of work to be done. Starting from the loss in the semi-final of the World Cup in 1999 there were quite a few things that needed attention. There has been lot of non-issues, to my mind, that needed to be treated as a cricketing issue. We’ve done lot of work on the technical side and game plans but there was also lot of baggage that needed to be treated differently.
On what has hindered their progress
I think we’ve had too many close games. For example, against West Indies in the Champions Trophy, we should have wrapped up the game by the 48th over. We aren’t as ruthless as we need to be. If we want to be the best team in the world, which I think we are capable enough given the talent and balance in the team, we’ve got to learn to be ruthless. That’s something we’re working on.
On losing to Australia at home and away
Losing any cricket match is not a disaster, and losing to Australia is no exception. You’ve got to realise they are a fine side. I think it is the way we lost that bugs people. That we failed to compete against them led to the defeat having a bigger effect.
On South Africa earning the tag of chokers
We’ve started an honest dialogue in the team to demolish it. This menace is a problem like alcoholism. If you don’t solve it, it remains a problem. You’ve got to solve it fast.
I don’t think we are chokers. We’ve to look into why we aren’t finishing games in the 48th over, why we’re having too many close games. It is an issue and we’ll sort out.
On why the side has failed to keep the momentum going after Hansie Cronje’s exit
You take Cronje out of the side and there’s always a big hole. Not as a cricketer but more as a captain and a leader. Shaun is good but I think he was thrown into a situation where he wasn’t prepared. It came totally unexpectedly and the side’s morale got a hammering from that. It took a lot of strain on the guys when they suddenly had their captain taken away in unforeseen circumstances.
On Shaun Pollock as captain
He has been around for a long time now. He has a fair understanding of the game and we have worked up a good relationship. It has been a bit of give and take in what we want to do and the way we would like to do them. The relationship between a coach and a captain in cricket is not as someone who’s in charge. It should be more of co-ordination and that’s what it is with Shaun.
On his thoughts on the World Cup
The one thing that I’ve been saying the whole season is that the Morocco tournament and the one here should be seen in isolation because the conditions will be so different in South Africa. The wicket on which we played India was quite slow and that’s not going to be the case there. We now go back and play Bangladesh and from there we really start our preparations. I would be lying if I didn’t say that the defeat here has knocked us out a bit as winning would have knocked us forward. But we have to realise that we played some excellent cricket.
On whether the side needs a psychologist
It’s been tried before but I wonder what’s he going to do with the team. You’re dealing with the pressures which all top sportsmen in the world face today. I think South Africa will be under tremendous pressure when playing at home in the World Cup since past records suggest that teams haven’t done well on their home turf. It will be a historic occasion and very tough.
On the contribution from seniors to team issues
They obviously play their part. We have a pool of players that form the core management group — Shaun, Allan Donald, Jonty Rhodes, Jacques Kallis, Gary Kirsten when he is around and a few others, besides myself. Our game plans have been good and the way we’ve stuck to our plans have been encouraging. We now need to sit down and sort a few issues and how best to approach them. I think they will all play a big role.
On his favourites for the World Cup
Australia are clear favourites. We are the second favourites, given the conditions. We will also be tough to beat at home. But anyone between Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan can win on their given day. One-day cricket is like that.
Finally, on whether the controversy over racial quota has affected the side
I don’t think it’s affected the team. The side is very open and honest to each other about it. They execute their job very professionally and with maturity. There’s a very wonderful spirit among the players.