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Feature

Why you should've been watching West Indies-Sri Lanka Tests

Sri Lanka's lively attack, their slip catching, West Indies' lower-order stonewalling and Gabriel's fire feature in the talking points of the series

AFP

AFP

So you didn't watch Sri Lanka's Test tour of the Caribbean. Perhaps the matches were played at inconvenient times. Or maybe the sight of all those empty stands may have made you nauseous. But the series, which fittingly finished 1-1, was compelling throughout, swinging one way and then the other. Here are the aspects that made it brilliant.
Shannon Gabriel: broad-shouldered sledgehammer
Almost without question the visual delight of this series, Gabriel was West Indies' muscled menace, taking 20 wickets at an average of 14.95 and striking roughly every 27 deliveries. So total was Gabriel's dominance, that in some spells, his deliveries not only leapt off a good length, many seemed to do mocking circles around batsmen, before seeking out the shoulder of the bat, and a pair of hands in the slips. Frequently breaching 145 kph, he was never short of effort, even in his last few overs of the day.
In general, Gabriel is one of the least proficient movers of the ball, relying on pace rather than seam or swing for his wickets - but in this series, he frequently got the ball to jag off the pitch in both directions. It is possible Gabriel enjoys bowling with the Dukes ball, which stays harder and has a more pronounced seam than the widely used Kookaburra. This means bowlers were able to move the ball for longer in the innings, in this series. Whatever the cause of his newfound potency, it does appear as if West Indies now have a strike bowler in their ranks. Since the start of 2017, Gabriel has 54 wickets at 23.63. Thirteen of those wickets came in the St. Lucia Test, where he collected the best figures ever in the Caribbean.
Wait… Sri Lanka have a seam attack?
Could it be, that after the likes of Dushmantha Chameera, Nuwan Pradeep and Shehan Madushanka were ruled out through injury, Sri Lanka have chanced upon a future-proof seam attack in Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha?
Not since the England tour of 2014, have Sri Lanka's seam bowlers hunted so effectively in a pack, as they did in St. Lucia and Barbados. Lakmal provided control and the wiles, Rajitha moved the ball more than almost any bowler in the series, and 21-year-old Kumara was the wrecking ball, hurling 145kph+ deliveries at batsmen's ribs, having them spasm in self-preservation as he claimed an outstanding 17 wickets at 19.88. All up, these three bowlers took 40 wickets at an average of 19 - the second-highest number of wickets claimed by Sri Lanka in a series, only one fewer than in a tour to New Zealand in 1990-91.
As Lakmal is 31, and Rajitha and Kumara are much younger, it is possible that this could become Sri Lanka's pace-bowling battery in overseas tours. But the concern with Sri Lanka's fast bowlers - as always - is injury. They may all tear their hamstrings and fall in a heap in the Tests against South Africa next month. They might tweak their groins getting off the plane in Colombo upon return. It is even possible that someone has dislocated a shoulder already, turning on the shower in the dressing room after the Barbados match finished. Such are the perils of being a Sri Lankan quick.
West Indies' lower-order spunk
Sri Lanka had the hosts reeling at 147 for 5 on the very first day of the series, before Shane Dowrich and Jason Holder combined for a defiant 90-run stand, establishing what would become a feature of the series. That partnership with Holder was followed up by Dowrich's 102-run stand with Devendra Bishoo, and later his 75-run association with Kemar Roach. On the back of those vital runs, West Indies reached 414 for 8, which in turn became the foundation for their Trinidad win.
All through the series, Sri Lanka bowlers scythed through the top order, only to be frequently frustrated by the plucky folks lower down. Dowrich was often the kingpin in this resistance, unfussily defusing the opposition quicks that had blown past the top four. Jason Holder generally contributed a useful innings in support, with Kemar Roach putting together some half-decent hands as well.
In the first innings in Bridgetown, West Indies had been 54 for 5 before Dowrich and Holder put on 113 in each other's company, helping push West Indies over 200 - the highest total of the game. In the second innings, West Indies were 41 for 6, and in danger of being dismissed for their lowest ever Test total, before the lower order cobbled valuable runs together. Had they made another 25, West Indies could have won the match and with it the series.
Sri Lanka's sudden slip-catching skill
In 2017, Sri Lanka fielded and caught like they had wet noodles for arms and papadam for fingers, but under Chandika Hathurusingha, fielding standards are once more on the rise, and this series was ample proof. Where West Indies frequently blew wicket chances in the slips, Sri Lanka were routinely clinical - Kusal Mendis in particular, making predatory dives in front of other fielders, to snatch low, fast chances.
With Sri Lanka having given up sizeable first-innings leads in all three matches, it was crucial that the early chances their quicks created in the second innings were grasped, and the standard of Sri Lanka's catching ensured pressure was relentlessly built through those new-ball overs. Even off the spinners, Sri Lanka were sharp - Dhananjaya de Silva's excellent overhead grab to dismiss Miguel Cummins off the bowling of Dilruwan Perera, a prime example. It also helped that Sri Lanka did not have wickets discounted due to no-balls, as West Indies did at least twice.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando