The Canadian batman
Cricket has many solitary figures. The club groundsman, preparing a wicket for the weekend's games. The third umpire, trying to gauge if a disputed catch has carried. The wicketkeeper who has just shelled the simplest of caught-behinds.
All of these, however, pale into insignificance when compared with Mark Warburton, of Aurora, Ontario. In continental North America, a region more than 20 million square kilometres in size, populated by well over 450 million people*, Warburton is likely the only living soul who hand-makes cricket bats.
"I know of no others," he says, wryly. "My supplier has told me that he's not sending willow to anybody else, so I think it's just me."
Even most Canadian cricket fans are unaware of his existence. "Bat distributors, we have aplenty," one friend assured me, "but bat-makers, we don't have." So what got Warburton started in such a seemingly thankless task?
Mostly a love of the game, he says, but not that alone. "Having spent years travelling in the Caribbean, and having a background in boat-building and woodworking, I thought I would be interested in making cricket bats. The properties of the willow, the client's specific demands, the custom nature of it, and the unique shape of the bat, all intrigued me."
Having the interest was one thing, but trying to start a bat-making business from scratch was another, especially in the heart of Canada. "I couldn't find anybody who could show me a cricket bat press; there were no other makers I could talk to. There was no information about it on the web either."
In his eagerness to learn more, Warburton left Canada to visit manufacturers in the UK, but no one would let him examine a bat press. "There is a lot of secrecy around the business," he recalls. "So I ended up designing and building my own."
Even then, there was the small matter of obtaining the right wood. "There is absolutely no chance of using Canadian willow," Warburton says. And that is despite the abundance of trees in Ontario. "I had to get my willow from Essex, where it is hybridised and grown specifically for the cricket bat industry.
"As a wood worker I can understand why, because the superior willow is straight-grained, and of a specific density, which when pressed and shaped reveals the properties required to withstand the impact of a ball."
Finally armed with the wood, the press, and the skills, Warburton set up Zoombats, and became Canada's only bat-man. "I can't compete against bats made in the subcontinent," he says, "so my niche market is for custom bats. Mine are built one at a time, with considerable input from the clients, at my shop. It is a very personal approach, but that is what I like about bat-making."
After a decade, Warburton's customer-oriented strategy has begun to pay dividends. "I have a real following of young players," he reveals. "They get excited about having a cricket bat-maker in Canada.
"Perhaps I'll never get rich doing this, but I get great satisfaction from seeing happy customers. I enjoy talking about the game with them, learning their requirements or criticisms, holding one of my bats as they tell me about a hundred they got with it."
The main challenge is finding places to sell his wares. "The market is difficult to tap into. Most of the cricket shops in North America aren't really set up for selling custom bats. I'd like to do better, but I will not machine-manufacture or mass-produce."
Geography doesn't help either. "This is a vast place," Warburton says. "From Newfoundland to Texas, Fort McMurray to Fort Lauderdale, there is a considerable fraternity of cricketers of all ages, but just not enough to sustain a homegrown business.
"Until we start seeing matches on television, and more people get wise to it, we will always be a sport in some sort of limbo. It's a shame," he says, "because it is the perfect game to be enjoyed by everyone."
Warburton is spreading the word, spending some of his time in Hong Kong each year, where cricket is a little more widely known. "But even here," he says, "I am still met with some incredulity when I mention cricket bat-making and Canada in the same sentence."
So, at least for the moment, Warburton doesn't advise anyone to follow him into the trade. "There won't be any huge profits to be gained from life as a pod-shaver," he says, "but as long as I can make high-quality bespoke bats for an appreciative clientele, then I'm happy."
And as for developing domestic cricket in North America, Warburton has a very simple strategy.
"Just play on," he concludes.
*As long as you include that cricketing hotbed of Mexico.
Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling