April 20, 2014

From hockey sticks to whalebone

Bat-making as a craft has undergone revolutionary changes and then some since the days of Hambledon

Unfinished bats sun outside a factory near Colombo Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP

Clubs for hitting things may have been around for millennia, but it wasn't until a news item in Read's Weekly Journal of 17 August 1723 that it was confirmed a cricket bat could be bought rather than whittled from a trunk by the batsman himself: "There was lately imported hither a great number of Batts and other utensils for Cricket-playing."

Although the article is thought to be a spoof on the exiled Prince of Wales lounging about in Rome, playing cricket in the palace gardens, rather than ruling at home, Hugh Barty-King, writing in Quilt Winders and Pod Shavers - The History of Cricket Bat and Ball Manufacture, argues it is evidence for the birth of the bat industry.

The oldest bat thought to be in existence resides at The Oval. The 1729 relic looks more like a hockey stick than a modern blade. Other surviving bats of this era resemble mammoth clubs cut from either ash or alder, and also possess the curved toe essential for lifting the underarm pea-rollers of the day.

Not until the bouncing delivery of the 1760s was a new design necessary, as Neville Cardus records in English Cricket: "As soon as Hambledon men bowled a length and used the air and caused the ball to rise sharply from the ground, a hockey stick sort of defence was of no avail."

Enter the legendary John Small, the man whom all modern batmakers must salute. Whether this cobbler-turned-batmaker invented the straight blade or not, he certainly mastered the innovation - as both player and manufacturer. The scorer of cricket's first ever first-class century, and canonised by John Nyren as a mortal glowing with "the lustre of a star", Small was also one of the signatories on a key document to standardise bat width. When Thomas "Shock" White strode to the wicket with a blade wider than a barn door, it was the Hambledon Club that decreed "in view of the performance of one cricketer of Ryegate on September 23rd 1771 that four and quarter inches shall be the breadth of a bat forthwith".

Bat dimensions have been tinkered with ever since, as have the raw materials - from Dennis Lillee's aluminium "ComBat" to Ricky Ponting's carbon-fibre handle - and in the 1830s Small's one-piece blade was finally replaced by a two-part spliced model. Barty-King believes the adaptation evolved through players asking batmakers to repair "solid bats whose handle had been knocked out". The resulting flexibility in a handle glued into the V added spring to shots. Thus the 1840s saw bats produced with a steel-rod insert, before this design was then tweaked with the lighter whalebone. In 1851 E & W Page of Kennington Road advertised "Superior whalebone-handled Bats which for strength and durability cannot be matched".

The oldest bat thought to be in existence resides at The Oval. The 1729 relic looks more like a hockey stick than a modern blade

Batmakers realised the handle was key to added power. The innovative craftsman-cricketer Thomas Nixon proved himself the Leonardo Da Vinci of the cricket kit world when he replaced whalebone-spliced willow with cane. He also took a patent out in 1862 for a bowling machine called the Balista.

Cricket's Golden Age was also the cricket manufacturer's boom, and sports outfitters and kit specialists burgeoned across the land, with a plethora of batmakers setting up shop close to the fertile willow pastures of Essex.

The modern bat shape owes as much to WG Grace as any craftsman. According to the 1868 Jubilee Book of Cricket, it was the big man himself who "turned the old one-stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre". A sentiment that Barty-King echoes: "To enable it to play the role given to it by the Grace Revolution and give it strength to drive the ball continuously to the boundary, the cricket bat developed a supporting hump."

I doubt Albert Trott would have hit that six over the Lord's pavilion with a one-piece bone-shaker, and it's hard to imagine the World T20 being as thrilling if it was if played with 4lb hockey sticks.

Of the many batmakers in business at the end of the 19th century, one was the gifted Notts player Richard Daft. It was certainly an epochal moment when he took on a 14-year-old apprentice named William Gunn, who was apparently as talented with a bat as he was at the carpenter's bench. In 1885 Gunn would join forces with TJ Moore to start Gunn & Moore.

Modern workshops, such as those of the rebranded GM Cricket on the banks of the Trent, would look like landed UFOs to the pioneers of the bat industry. Yet despite the machine-sawn blades cut to millimetre accuracy by hydraulic robots programmed with CAD software, the bats must still be hand-finished with wooden mallets and draw knives, tools that Small himself would have used to fashion his Hambledon "straight bats" of the 1700s.

After watching the deft labour of the Notts craftsmen on the shop floor last year, I'd agree with the journalist Richard Kent, who visited the factory back in 1957: "In this age of mechanical mass-production it is good to know that there are still a goodly number of English yeomen who take a delight in fashioning things by skill of eye and hand."

Despite the mutations, innovations and evolution - whether in the game, materials or cunning design of both the batmaker and the shot maker - our beloved cricket is still a sport of touch and feel, whether in the workshop or at the crease.

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