Around half-past-twelve, Shannon Gabriel hauled himself up from his seat in the West Indies dressing room and started the long walk downstairs and out to the middle of the ground. His team were nine wickets down and 181 runs behind, and, given the way Gabriel bats, there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about any of it. He trudged ever so slowly to the middle, with the weary air of a harassed father pulling himself out of his deckchair to separate his squabbling kids for the umpteenth time. Deep down, Gabriel must love playing cricket, but as this series has gone on, it’s looked like he can’t quite remember why.
In Southampton three weeks ago, Gabriel tore England apart. Four for 62 in the first innings, five for 75 in the second. It was some match, especially since he was coming off the back of six months of rehab after he had ankle surgery last November. But boy did it take a lot out of him. In the second Test a week later, he looked exhausted. His action was beginning to creak and lurch, his line was so wayward that he started to spray the occasional ball straight through to the slips, and in the end he had to limp off the pitch to get treatment on his aching right leg. These three back-to-back matches have been hard on all the players, but hardest on him.
Gabriel’s not a natural cricketer. He came to the game late, after he was talked into taking it up in his teens by a policeman who wanted to keep him out of trouble back in Trinidad. Ian Bishop, who knows him from way back, says his action took a lot of coaching. Even now, after a decade of first-class cricket, it feels like Gabriel is only just in control of his lumbering run, which seems to end, more often than it should, with him overstepping the crease.
He makes the sign of the cross at the start of every spell, head, chest, breast to breast, as if he’s praying it will all go right for him this time, and his line and length was a matter of god’s whim.
In this third Test, it clicked on Saturday morning, when Gabriel summoned up from deep within himself one last extraordinary spell. He got Ollie Pope twice in two balls, dropped, once, then clean-bowled, and he did for Jos Buttler two overs later, too, when he had him caught at slip. It was the last moment this match felt in the balance. Then Stuart Broad started his hitting spree, and the game began to run away from West Indies again. I’m not sure Gabriel had much more to give after that. After the three weeks he’s had, a walloping from Broad was the wafer-thin mint that finished him.
On Sunday, Gabriel flogged himself through five more overs with the new ball. He hit Rory Burns on the shoulder, but the only real damage he did was to Shane Dowrich, who let one short ball burst through his wicket-keeping gloves into his lip, and had to go off for treatment. Gabriel followed him not long after. His stiff-legged limp suggested that his leg was bothering him again. It’s not clear when, or if, we’ll see him bowl in a Test in England again. He is only 32, but West Indies aren’t due to tour here again this side of 2023. It might be the last time out for his partner Kemar Roach, too, since he is the same age.
They’re an odd couple. One of the curiosities of this series has been how you hear the players’ chatter loud and clear in the empty ground. When Roach is bowling, the fielders are always crying out encouragement. But when Gabriel’s on, they all fall silent, like it’s best not to disturb him while he’s at work. Roach grins as often as any man ever has on the field, even when he’s on a long wicketless streak and the umpires have disagreed with another of his appeals. Gabriel hasn’t been seen to smile yet. But it works. They have been the backbone of West Indies for most of the last decade, and the keystone around which Jason Holder has rebuilt the team. Two fine fast bowlers, if, in Gabriel’s case, sometimes a very reluctant one, too.