profile : Bobby Simpson : A coach in overdrive Derek Pringle studies the methods of the man who is a major influence in Austra lian cricket

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The Independent Online
For someone who has twice come to the aid of Australian cricket in its darkest hour, Bobby Simpson inspires a curious lack of affection in the Australian cricketing world. After all, here was a man who responded to the call of his country, return ing some 10 years after retiring from Test cricket, to captain a depleted Australia, still reeling from the Packer revolt. And his appointment as coach in 1986 came during Australia's most unsuccessful period for a century, following more defection to So uth Africa. He soon turned the situation around.

Such conduct in adversity should have made him a hero, but Simpson, while attracting admiration from afar, has never been embraced by those close to the game. His authoritarian approach and dour, percentage cricket may have lifted Australia, but it is said that even his friends find it easier to respect the man than love him.

That may all change now that he no longer finds himself selector as well as coach. Before that, his combined role, though tolerated by Allan Border, was unpopular with many players, who were unable or unwilling to confide in someone who could just as easily wield the axe as proffer a helping hand.

Simpson's redefined role as coach has produced a markedly more relaxed atmosphere and one that has shone through in Australia's cricket - though the skipper Mark Taylor must be given credit as well.

With the vultures circling over Atherton and England, the feeling is that even Keith Fletcher, good egg that he is, would sacrifice his immense popularity for just a fraction of the results achieved by his opposite number. Even when cornered, Fletcher never turns nasty, a trait many feel to be his fatal flaw.

Simpson also has his detractors, who, despite the upturn in results, believe he is too cautious and that Australia will never be top dog while he remains in charge. Ian Chappell once said that a coach is something the team travel around in when touring England and anything else under that name is entirely surplus to requirements. In Chappell's day, the captain ran the show both on and off the field. Times have changed, and part of Simpson's brief when he began as coach was to help a reticent and moody Border cope with extra media commitments. Saddled with a captain's job he had not wanted in the first place, Border was only too happy to sit back and let Simpson take over the off-field responsibilities.

By winning over sections of the media, Simpson was able to stifle debate and extend his influence and control to such a degree that, within a year of Australia's World Cup victory of 1987, he was also a selector, and quickly became one of the most powerful people in Australian cricket - some would say too powerful - as the performances of his side improved.

Enforcing a work ethic born of his Scottish ancestry, he rooted out talented but lazy individuals like Greg Ritchie and Wayne Phillips, and by laying down some basic requirements for prospective internationals, Australia became fitter, quickly developinginto the foremost fielding side in the world.

For some, this has not been enough. Apart from that World Cup victory in 1987, and three successful Ashes campaigns, there has been little else worthy of fanfare. Australia have not won a series against the West Indies for 20 years, and much of the blamefor the recent bad feeling between the two sides has been laid at Simpson's door. Certainly, his blinkered thinking has been blamed for Australia's disastrous 1992 World Cup, when several players were selected well past their sell-by date.

With his selectorial judgement under question - his position became virtually untenable following his public support for Merv Hughes and Shane Warne after both players had been in South Africa - he resigned from the selection panel. Cunningly, his reappointment as coach for a further two years pre-empted any media campaign to oust Simpson, now 58.

Robert Baddley Simpson was born in Sydney on 3 February 1936, the son of Scottish immigrants who had moved to Australia in 1927 in the midst of the Depression. Simpson's father, formerly a left-half with Stenhousemuir and Falkirk, played semi-professional football to make ends meet. Growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney just after the Second World War, was a rough and tumble experience for any youngster, but Simpson seemed to relish the tough environment. By the age of 12, he had captained Tempe B oys' High School, often amusing classmates by catching houseflies in mid-air with either hand, reflexes that made him into arguably the greatest of all slip fieldsmen.

Three years later, he was playing First Grade, the most competitive form of cricket below State level and one that makes or breaks youngsters by the end of their teens. At first, he was a dasher who batted at six or seven, bowling useful leg-breaks to supplement his brilliant fielding. It was enough to get him a game for New South Wales, but, as Simpson recalled: "One day, the skipper Neil Harvey told me to concentrate more and when Jimmy Burke retired he put me in to open."

It was a masterstroke. Simpson stripped away all embellishment, settling instead for a sound defence, a few deft strokes and enough gall with which to pinch quick singles. Making his Test debut in 1957 against South Africa, he had to wait another 51 innings for his maiden century, a trojanesque 311 against England in 1964. It is still one of the longest periods for a batsman to take to get his first Test hundred, and the wait made him even more suspicious of flashiness: patience and hard graft had at last paid off.

In that same year, he took over the Australian captaincy from Richie Benaud, a job Simpson kept for 29 Tests until his retirement from first-class cricket in 1968 at the age of 31. Simpson was a dour, unsmiling leader, who believed players could drill themselves into good habits, and he forbade the hugging and shows of elation that Benaud had encouraged.

Under Simpson, Australia developed into a regimented and uncompromising unit, undergoingfielding drills even in those days. Improvement was always the goal, as shown when the skipper himself altered his batting technique, opting for a shorter-handled batas well as opening his stance so that bowlers could see more of his broken nose. Open defiance was the name of the game and between them Simpson and the left-handed Bill Lawry forged one of Test cricket's most obdurate opening combinations.

If the cricket, based around attrition, tended to be dull, there was no shortage of controversy off the field. In 1965, Simpson was sued for libel by Ian Meckiff, a former Test cricketer, after Simpson had included the left-arm quickie in a chapter called "Chuckers" in his book A Captain's Story.

It was the first case of an Australian cricketer sueing a team-mate and was settled out of court five years later. It was a bitter experience, and as a consequence Simpson has never shrunk from sueing newspapers he feels have been less than truthful about him.

Following retirement, he continued to play Grade cricket for Wests, the same club Angus Fraser was playing for before his call-up to the England side recently. At the age of 41, Simpson had been out of the first-class game for 10 years when he was brought back as Australia's captain against India during the Packer revolution. The 539 runs he scored at an average of 53.9, including two centuries, represented a remarkable comeback.

Named as captain for the West Indies, he and his inexperienced side comfortably lost the series. Undeterred, Simpson sought a guarantee from the Australian Cricket Board over his selection to England. Surprised to find none forthcoming, he promptly retired again, this time finally, after 61 Tests in all.

A few years ago, presumably for want of a challenge, Simpson agreed to coach Leicestershire. Jonathan Agnew was in his last year at the club and said that Simpson was like a breath of fresh air. "I thought he was good news all round, particularly for theyounger players like Paul Nixon and David Millns," Agnew said. "You could see how he might rub up some of the senior players the wrong way, but I believe Leicestershire's recent successes have their foundation in Simmo's two years at the club."

England's hierarchy could do a lot worse than study his blueprint and hand it to all 18 counties. At least it would be a start.

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