The Shannon Gabriel paradox

Shannon Gabriel bends his back AFP

It is the pace that draws you in. Shannon Gabriel, pitching short of a length on a track that is not especially helpful, getting it to explode off the pitch, little thrusters almost visible beneath the ball; the batsman jerking involuntarily, nicking off, the keeper leaping to snatch it because it looks like it is still rising when it gets to him. This is Gabriel's delivery to Kusal Mendis on the final morning of the Trinidad Test. The dismissal cracks the game open for West Indies. Mendis had threatened to stall their advance, hitting a hundred.

Gabriel's is the perfect ball for the situation. It is angry and vicious, drawing a shot that is more preservation of self than preservation of wicket. But had he bowled it to anyone else in the Sri Lanka batting order, they might have missed it - maybe by inches. Only Mendis, batting as well as he was, could get close. On air, Ian Bishop and Sunil Gavaskar are in awe. "Unplayable," they say. Earlier in the match, in the final few overs of the second day, Gabriel's bowling had been scintillating. He hit Angelo Mathews flush on the helmet, zipped it past several batsmen's outside edges, and scattered fear through the Sri Lanka dressing room.

But then you look at Gabriel's returns. Only one wicket in that spine-stiffening, heart-thumping, goosebump-cajoling spell of four overs on the second evening. Four for 100 from the Test overall . A Test from which, two years from now, you might remember only Gabriel, and nothing else. A Test which, in the memory, he had set on fire, but on the scorecard, had merely been a solid contributor. Roston Chase, who bowls the kind of offbreaks that people who can't decide which bowling style they want to adopt eventually settle on, took 4 for 15.

There is no question that right now, Gabriel is a bowler who thrills. As he surges in with the new ball and makes batsmen spasm, he conjures up memories of the West Indies quicks of lore. Cricviz pegs him as the third-fastest bowler on the planet since January 2017, behind only Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. His strike rate is only slightly worse than those more celebrated quicks. In this period, it is much better than those of Stuart Broad, Josh Hazlewood and Mohammad Amir. When he delivers his exceptional spells, as he did in Hamilton last December, or at Headingley, in what was perhaps West Indies' most famous win of the decade, he seems a world-beating bowler.

And yet, there is something forgettable about his returns. The average is merely a useful 33.85. Even since the start of 2017 - the best period of Gabriel's career - he only averages 28.34. This is behind titans of the craft, such as James Anderson, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada - but also worse than non-titans, such as Umesh Yadav. This can't be blamed on Gabriel having operated in a worse attack than those bowlers, because Kemar Roach - Gabriel's usual opening partner, and a much more workmanlike quick - actually has a better average since the beginning of last year. More likely, it is because Gabriel relies too heavily on his pace to get wickets. No other bowler, according to Cricviz, has moved the ball as little as Gabriel since 2017.

This is not to say that Gabriel doesn't move the ball at all. In Hamilton, at Headingley, even in the Trinidad match, there was deviation off the seam, the deliveries to get Mendis and Dinesh Chandimal in the first innings having jagged away from the right-handers. But there is potential for more. In Gabriel, West Indies have a bowler who, at 30, bowls almost as quick as younger tearaways, and at present appears resistant to injury, His average in West Indies victories - 23.14 - is good, bordering on excellent. If a little skill can be added - curve in the air, maybe, and more consistent jive off the pitch - Gabriel could become an altogether more menacing proposition.

Suddenly, he might not be the bowler who excites in certain spells and frustrates in others. Envenomed by movement, Gabriel could become the world-beating quick he sometimes threatens to be.