Comeback kids make good for West Indies
They could not read Shane Shillingford, not even his eyes.
Firmly hidden as they were by his ever-present sunglasses, there was no emotion, no hint at intent for the Zimbabwe batsmen to discern. What the offspinner did with his hands was an equal mystery. The doosra, subtle changes of pace and length confused them equally; so for two Test matches in a row, Shillingford put up Man-of-the-Series numbers, subduing the Zimbabweans in batches of sixes, fives and fours.
With 19 wickets in the two-match mismatch of a series, he was hardly a gentle change from the pace of Shannon Gabriel. Capable of letting the ball go steadily in the 140kph range, Gabriel made for uncomfortable negotiation before Shillingford stepped forward.
Like changes of clothes, bowlers fast and slow have come and gone with the trade winds over the past 18 years. Hope has come and gone. But maybe times are changing back again. Slowly, the West Indies selectors have been finding men for different seasons - Tests, 50-overs, Twenty20s.
Shillingford and Gabriel did the business this series. It was a triumphant comeback for both men.
Shillingford, the 30-year old offspinner from Dominica, was returning to the Test side after nearly ten months. His response was those 19 wickets, a new West Indies record for a two-match rubber, and at a mean average of 10.52.
The 24-year-old Gabriel, who made his Test debut in May last year in England, had played just the one game at Lord's before having to leave the tour with a back injury. This series against Zimbabwe marked his return to Tests and he continued to build on the good impression created on debut with six wickets at 14.00.
But Shillingford and Gabriel are not present-day successes in isolation. They are part of a pool that also includes fast bowlers Kemar Roach and Tino Best, who likewise played against the Zimbabweans, Ravi Rampaul, who was sidelined by injury, and last year's ICC Emerging Player of the Year Sunil Narine, who was, according to coach Ottis Gibson, rested for the Tests. In addition, there is the seam/swing offering of captain Darren Sammy.
West Indies are relying on strength in numbers these days. A record of prolific wicket-taking over a period of time still eludes this group as individuals. However, when he has played, Shillingford has produced steadily. In ten Tests now, he has taken 48 wickets, including four five-wicket hauls and two matches in which he has taken ten.
On turning pitches, he is more than a handful. Australia's batsmen could not master him when they toured last year. Shillingford took 14 wickets in two Tests against them, including ten in the final match at his home ground at Windsor Park in Dominica.
And as the Zimbabweans found out, the bounce the six-foot-plus Shillingford extracts can be difficult to deal with, particularly if you don't employ the proper technique. The combination of bounce and overall control really make Shillingford an asset in the right conditions, and a good foil in general. He is a thinking bowler, mature enough to combine his physical skills with those telling variations.
But his most valuable asset is none of these. It is that Shane Shillingford refuses to be beaten by any circumstances. He has character.
Think of his disappointment at taking ten wickets against the Australians and then being omitted for the next match in England, new kid on the block Narine being preferred to him. And then, having played in difficult conditions for spinners in Nottingham in May, he could not secure a spot in Test series against New Zealand at home and Bangladesh away, where the left-arm spinner Veerasammy Permaul gained one of the two spinning slots. Fathoming the reasoning of the West Indies selectors must have been as difficult for him as it was for followers of Caribbean cricket in general.
However, Shillingford kept taking wickets when given the chance. After three rounds of the Regional Four-Day competition this season, he was the leading wicket-taker with 24. The selectors decided it was time to pick him again.
But then coming back from setbacks has been a feature of Shillingford's career. Twice he has had to overcome the trauma of having his bowling action called into question. As a 17-year-old in 2001, he was no-balled in a Busta Cup four-day game against Leeward Islands. Shillingford subsequently did remedial work on his action. However, in his first year of Test cricket in 2010 following a match against Sri Lanka, he was reported by the umpires. In 2011, he was cleared to play once more. His positive nature has served him well through these periods of uncertainty. And at 30, Shillingford is a man fortified by various trials.
Gabriel, six years younger, is now starting out. He only made his first-class debut in 2010. Back then, his approach to the crease was awkward, ungainly. But it was already an improvement on what it had been when the youngster from New Grant in Trinidad's deep south was first discovered. A stint at the Sagicor High Performance Centre in Barbados has smoothed out some of those rough edges. And over the past three years, Gabriel has kept on coming strong.
Always able to generate real pace from his solidly muscled six-foot frame, Gabriel also possesses an aggressive streak that has made him a handful for batsmen even on the Caribbean's benign pitches. What he lacked in the past was consistency.
So far in 2013, however, Gabriel has been more on target. Intent on bowling a fuller length against Zimbabwe, he was rewarded with some away swing which allowed him to make some of the breakthroughs his captain Sammy would have wanted from a strike bowler.
"He has worked extremely hard both on his fitness and the technicalities," says his Trinidad and Tobago coach David Williams, the former assistant to Gibson. Noting the work Gabriel and T&T assistant coach Kelvin Williams did last August when the bowler went back to the High Performance Centre, David Williams said slight adjustments have made a big difference this season. "They just remodelled his action a little bit to get him up a little straighter. He's a little more accurate now and a little quicker. He's more balanced at the crease."
Injury seems the only obstacle standing in the way of Gabriel becoming a West Indies fixture.
Carefully used, he and the already refined Shillingford can be gems. Gems to shine for some time.
Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express