Putting the wood on 'em
Quinton de Kock suspected there was "a lot of hard work" that went into making the bats he uses. On Wednesday, he found out exactly how much.
The trees are grown by a merchant in Essex, their trunks hand-split with a beedle and axe into clefts and then left out in a yard for up to three months to dry. Then, they are dehumidified so the moisture levels reduce from 60% to 14%. From there, the willow is sawn into blades, pressed with two different machines and finished by shaping, sanding, polishing, adding a handle and knocking it in.
When that bat is delivered to de Kock, he sees it for exactly what it is. "A bat's a bat, wood's wood; it doesn't really matter. For me, it's like that," de Kock says during a visit to the Gunn & Moore factory in Nottingham. "I'm not really one to be bothered about it. I take the bats that I have. If I need to fix it to my personal comfort I will do that. Otherwise, I am not picky at all. I take the bat that's been given to me and that's what it is."
Having started his career with the reputation of being a reckless and rebellious wunderkind - an image earned more because of the kinds of shots he plays than his demeanour - de Kock is serious about saving his sponsors from over-expenditure. "When I started playing professionally, I didn't used to look after my bats as much," he says. "I went through eight or ten a year but I am slowly getting better. Last year I used six or seven and I am on my third this year. I try to keep it to as few as I can."
So has de Kock become an environmentalist, an advocate of sustainable living, or is he just superstitious? "I have a theory that if I look after my sponsor, they will look after me. With pads, I try and use one set of pads through as many years as I can, even though I know they always want me to use the new shapes and colours. I try and do what I can to look after the bats, especially."
If his bat suffers a small chip, de Kock mends it himself, otherwise he sends it to the factory for repair, preferring them to fix it rather than replace it. He also does some of his own maintenance work. "The only thing I believe in is oil. I believe that makes the bat better," he says. "I am not worried about grains or different kinds of wood - wood's wood. I think the oil makes it last longer and just makes it better."
Vernon Philander takes an almost entirely different approach to his bats. "It's a bit like picking up a golf glove - there is something you really like about it and then that's the one you want," he says. "You've got to have something you are comfortable with, that will be suitable to your game."
In a 45-minute window, Philander had two new bats made. Generally, he likes to have different bats for different conditions. "For the subcontinent, I like bats with a lower sweet spot because the balls don't bounce as much. In South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, which are more or less the same, I have a higher sweet spot."
Before you snigger at Philander's fussiness, consider that he bats at No. 8 at has six Test fifties to his name, including two at Lord's. Before making his first international appearance in 2007, he was considered a genuine allrounder and the runs he has scored for South Africa have saved their blushes on several occasions. He has many more in his sights too. "My batting was always something that I've taken great pride in, and maybe sometimes I've neglected it a little bit. Hopefully that first hundred is around the corner."
On the corner of Trent Lane and Little Tennis Road sits the only large-scale bat-making factory in the UK - Gunn & Moore. It is a 60-person operation, where one man, Kevin Stimpson, has worked for 43 years. Stimpson's job is that of finisher and he takes immense pride in putting the final touches on the bats used by the likes of Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and an unnamed Indian batsman who wanted a quarter of an ounce removed from his bat with sandpaper.
Older than him are the two presses. One was acquired by William Gunn in 1885 as his first investment and the second has been working since 1947. They are the machines that make the magic happen. In the five or so millimetres of willow that are compacted, the bats get their power and spring. Gunn & Moore have tried to get students from a local university to design one machine that can do the work of both presses, as together they are becoming fairly labour-intensive, but they were unable to figure out exactly how much pressure these venerable pieces of equipment apply. Instead, these presses are maintained and parts replaced regularly so they can keep going.
Sustainability is going to become a hot topic in cricket, especially as awareness grows. It takes 20 years for a willow tree to grow to the extent that it can be used to make bats, though it can be done in 15. English willow is the preferred choice for them because the Kashmir willow is denser. "It's therefore heavier and, because it has two growing seasons, it has a wide grain and a narrow grain, so it's inconsistent," Peter Wright, the MD of Gunn & Moore explains. "They have to press quite hard to make sure the wider bit is pressed enough. The dense wood becomes even denser." And most batsmen prefer lighter, narrower grains that have as much power.
That's why the art of bat-making will continue on as big a scale as possible in England. To make sure they have artisans who can keep the factory going, Gunn & Moore have interns working with their more experienced people in the hope that there will be a transfer of skills. De Kock and Philander will be two of the many bat users pleased with that.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent