March 6, 2014

Who cares about bats anyway?

We don't think much about our bats, do we? No, not much at all

Every bat has its own story © Getty Images

Long before the game of cricket, before we stood about in fields hunting wickets, we spent the afternoons carrying wooden clubs, stalking woolly mammoths. One could argue that our natural state is to be armed. And therefore it's no surprise that grown men will invest time and money, and indulge in endless and ill-informed conversations with other grown men about the weight distribution of certain bat designs, the latest innovation that will revolutionise our game, and then retire to our shed/garage/bedroom and run our finger along a cleft of willow.

Such is the importance of buying a new blade that it can provide a seminal father-son bonding experience - especially that magical "first bat". Son might be driven out to the sports shop by father on a spring morning, perhaps a day after news about a stirring England win overseas, or a school letter about team whites, or the constant pleading of little Jonny, who is savvy enough to mention to dad that his best friend, who also plays for the county team, has just been bought a new bat by his dad, who also happens to drive a sleeker car than little Jonny's father.

But anyway, it's not a case of keeping up with the Joneses. Little Jonny's father has memories of his own father buying him a bat, when edges were edges and not middles, and the maker's name was a moniker of history and resonance, rather than a garish badge with the name of a machine gun, sword, or Viking god's mythical hammer.

And little Jonny knows that once father is in the shop, any grumbling about price and newfangled technology will be forgotten when he picks up a bat. He'll remember an innings from yore, when he put that fast bowler from Lower Smeddington into the brook, and he'll play a few air shots, be surprised at how something so chunky can feel so light, and then ramble to the teenage shop assistant about plastic facing versus good old-fashioned linseed oil. Meanwhile little Jonny is lost in his own reverie, testing the bats endorsed by his heroes, the blades with the boldest names and most luminous stickers.

Now, depending on the failed and frustrated ambition of little Jonny's dad, little Jonny's grip and stance may be subject to some impromptu shop-floor coaching. Father may well lecture son about the pitfalls of a heavy bat, that he'll end up slogging if he can't swing it correctly. Meanwhile the wallet-watching parent may consider the price tag and the fact that his progeny is still sprouting, and how although that Harrow might be a bit big for him now he'll grow into it by next season.

My GM Epic is without doubt my most treasured possession. When I bat it's an extension of my body, a trusty, near-magical middle that has never let me down

Either way, once in the sports shop it's most likely that little Jonny will be driven home with the new bat on his lap. Father will then doubt the veracity of the "factory knocked-in" guarantee, and spend an hour or so pelting it with a ball while little Jonny watches and waits for his own go. Or mother comes outside and wags her finger at the migraine-inducing thunk, thunk, thunk.

This scene has been repeated for centuries. My own father recalls his first bat, a Gunn & Moore - he's from a coal-mining town in Notts, and buying any other brand but the local maker was treason. What he also remembers is how his father swished with his new purchase in the garden a little too exuberantly, catching the virgin blade on a metal fence post. Sixty years on, my father still winces at the tragedy.

My own first proper bat for proper balls was a full-size blade sacrilegiously set in a vice by my father and sawn down so I could heft it without spraining a wrist. Little did he know then that he'd actually invented the long-handled Uzi championed by Mongoose 30 years before Marcus Trescothick would be wagered a million pounds to spank a six with it over the Lord's pavilion.

Still, a hacksawed bat or not, it was my first bat. And a man's bat for a man's ball. I carried it to school and took it down the park, and my father must have realised I wasn't faking my love for cricket, and decided to buy me a proper blade, a piece of willow that didn't risk splinters.

That too was a Gunn & Moore, naturally. And although I forget the name, it was certainly cared for, oiled and - apologies to my neighbours - thoroughly knocked in. Once I grew out of the Gunn & Moore a Gray-Nicolls Dynadrive followed, with my second-favourite blade in this batography, a Duncan Fearnley. Whether or not this was actually the best bit of wood didn't matter. It was the choice of Ian Botham. It meant suddenly I could hoist length balls for six. I also blame its loss - stolen from a shed at my ex-girlfriend's - for my decade-long hiatus from cricket.

After a failed experiment with a * (*insert name of large UK sports chain selling tat) plank I made the trip back to Notts and got a new GM - the company formally known as Gunn & Moore.

My GM Epic is without doubt my most treasured possession. When I bat it's an extension of my body, a trusty, near-magical middle that has never let me down. There is a story that when Harold Pinter was evacuated from his burning house during a blitz he ran back inside and saved his beloved bat. If my boat - I live on a barge on the Thames - sank, it would be that piece of wood that I'd salvage first.

Alas, after two seasons, two foreign tours, and a few-dozen sixes, the Epic is a battered soldier limping on. It has already been through one refurb, and should gracefully retire from further battles like a decorated war veteran.

Still, I wonder if it could survive another refurb? Perhaps it can be patched up and fight one more glorious summer? And if it does come to pieces in my hand while at the crease, then this would be a fitting, heroic ending.

Not that we think about our bats too much, not at all.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award