Shannon Gabriel is not particularly athletic. He does not have the smooth approach to the wicket or the copybook bowling action of some of his legendary predecessors. He lumbers to the wicket instead, as if there is some force preventing him from breaking out into a full sprint.
He does not often present an upright seam and is therefore not a consistent swinger or seamer of the ball.
His no-ball problem is persistent and frustrating, and every time his overstepping robs him and his team of a wicket, you wonder why this problem is so difficult to fix. And If you were coaching young, up and coming fast bowling talent, you would not cite the burly Trinidadian as an example to follow, at least not in the way you’d point them to the likes of Malcolm Marshall or Michael Holding or Curtly Ambrose. Though improving, his record after 33 Tests is not great, having captured only 87 wickets at 33.85.
And yet, despite all his drawbacks, Gabriel has one quality that everyone in his line of work crave: when he really lets himself go, Gabriel is capable of generating rapid, foreboding velocity. And now he has written his name alongside some of those past West Indian greats with a match haul of 13/121, the third best figures in West Indies cricket history.
Cricket historian CLR James said this of George John, the Trinidadian and West Indian fast bowler of the early 1900s: “He was one of those rare ones, a fast bowler who proposed to defeat you first of all by pace and sheer pace.” Gabriel is the same.
He has come a far way. Introduced to the world when he made his debut at Lords in 2012, there were times, during his first few years, when you wondered if that was the best they could do in the Caribbean. Yet no one can dare say now that he does not belong, for he has shown that he does a number of times in recent years.
This current series against Sri Lanka has seen Gabriel at his best. His pace has been relentless, and it is doubtful that he has bowled a tighter line and employed a fuller, more troublesome length at any time during his career. It is still his pace that makes him a serious threat, but this series might also be the most accurate he has bowled.
On his home ground in Port of Spain for the first Test of the series, he managed only four wickets. But anybody who saw him would have to agree that he could have reaped substantially better rewards with a little more luck and a little better catching. In St Lucia, for the second Test, he has received his rightful rewards, five wickets in the first innings and eight in the second. Whatever else happens in this Test match, this has been the performance of his life.
He has been, without a doubt, Sri Lanka’s main worry. The others they could cope with reasonably well, but Roach has been another matter altogether, not only threatening to take their wickets but there is the danger of physical harm as well.
Gabriel has generally kept a fuller length, but that does not mean he has totally neglected the short, rising delivery. In the first Test, Angelo Mathews suffered a fearful hit to his helmet. In the second Dhananjaya de Silva was struck on his elbow, a blow which must have been doubly painful since the ball ricocheted on to his stumps.
The ball which saw captain Dinesh Chandimal begin his trek to the pavilion after fending to gully, was also particularly vicious, though the batsman had to be recalled when replays revealed the bowler had overstepped by a huge margin. This has been a long-running problem Gabriel and the West Indies coaching staff has to fix.
There is no doubt Gabriel has improved immensely, but he has some distance still to go. The pitches in Trinidad and St Lucia offered some help: there was some life in both surfaces, some seam movement, and a bit of uneven bounce as the matches wore on. He will soon enough meet up on other surfaces that will offer him nothing. At some point he will be armed with the kookaburra, which is not as helpful as the Dukes that is used in the Caribbean and in England.
There are things he and Corey Collymore will need to work on. The Barbadian was a master at seam presentation and should be able to help in that area. Gabriel needs to elicit more swing and seam to increase his effectiveness. And though his accuracy is much improved it could get better still.
Additionally, Gabriel is now 30. Providing he avoids serious injury he should be able to continue bowling rapidly for some time yet. But pace does not last forever. He needs to develop more of the skills of his trade if he wants to have a long, successful career. It is evident he has done a lot of work, coming from where he was to have gotten to where he currently is. But he will still need to do a lot more.
For now, however, pace remains his weapon of choice.