February 18, 2013

The blade maketh the man

Paul Edwards
What batsmen want out of their bats has changed over the years - but not so much that they are any less finicky than their predecessors

"Bats no longer have edges. They have a front, a back - and two sides." Michael Holding's judgement, given on air during one of last summer's Tests, was delivered in his typically deep Jamaican tones, and it brooked no disagreement.

One has only to look at the weapons being used by first-class cricketers to see that the profile of bats has changed. Long gone is the traditional blade, the 2lb 5oz scimitar. Willows are no longer particularly willowy.

Yet, as many league cricketers can testify, while the modern bat may look like a mighty piece of wood with its huge 70mm edges, it is very far from the 3lb clubs used 20 and more years ago by Clive Lloyd, Graham Gooch and their like. The average weight of today's bats is around 2lb 9oz, and this in a craft where taking an ounce off a blade can make all the difference to those key criteria, balance and pick-up. So how have manufacturers managed to make 41 ounces look like 48 or more?

Welcome to the arcane world of pressing, bowing and concave shaping, a realm where professional sportsmen still take delivery of the highly crafted tools of their trade and then put them in the airing cupboard to dry them out a bit. One thing before we start: you can forget linseed oil; that's just so last century.

Pressing the wood is vital to a bat's performance. All bat makers do this but if they press too little, the bat will be more likely to break, while if they press too much, its responsiveness and performance will be reduced. "There is an optimum amount of pressing," said Stuart Waterton, brand manager at Kookaburra UK. "It is vitally important to produce the drive, and will vary for each piece of wood."

"Each pressing is different, even if you're making two bats from the same tree," said Alex Mace, cricket product manager at Slazenger. "We press a bat three times, and under-pressing a bat is better than over-pressing, particularly for the bats we provide for the professionals.

"It is expected that our professionals will break more bats given the amount of use they get. You're only talking about a few per cent but the performance of a professional's bat will generally be better than what you'd get from a bat bought off the shelf. That's explained by the pressing techniques. We'd like to get the two more aligned but we're not there yet."

In the meantime, bat manufacturers attempt to provide their customers in club cricket with the highest-quality product they can. Slazenger's top-of-the-range Jonny Bairstow-endorsed, limited edition Retro V12 will set you back £425, while Kookaburra's Players bat retails at 500 quid.

"In terms of a top-price bat there's no difference between the one we sell to a customer and that we provide for a professional," said Waterton. "The cricketer who buys a Players bat will be getting a bat of pretty much the same quality as that we would provide for a Team Kookaburra Player like Stephen Moore."

And very well-heeled club batsmen visiting John Newbery's workshop in Sussex last summer could treat themselves to a Cenkos, the first £1000 bat. Reassuringly expensive, some might argue, the Cenkos was custom-built in every respect and came in its own case. Newbery's made a limited edition of just 25 and sold the lot.

Many adjustments need to be made before a cricket bat meets the requirements of either endorsers or customers. Most players prefer a round handle, although some still like an oval shape. Some - Jacques Kallis, for example - opt to have more wood towards the bottom of the bat, while Eoin Morgan requires a medium-high profile. However, it is no longer the fashion for players to use a different profile of bat depending on the pitches in the country where they are playing. "The bats we made for Ian Bell to go to India this winter were exactly the same as he uses in the UK," said Waterton.

The majority of batsmen also prefer there to be a slight bow in the shape of the bat and for its face to be flat. (The traditional view was that the face should be slightly convex, but the current consensus is that this makes the bat look narrow, which is absolutely not the feeling a member of the top order wants to have.)

Then there's the back of the blade to be dealt with. In order that the bat can be as thick as possible without any increase in weight, bat makers have developed a technique whereby the traditionally sloping areas either side of the spine are made a little concave to allow wood to be removed in compensation for the size of the spine.

"The holy grail is a big bat with a light pick-up," said Mace. "People now look at size rather than the grain, even though the grain might be perfect." Yet a decade ago customers in sports shops could be found closely examining the grain of prospective purchases and regarding it as a vital criterion in their final choice. Maybe some still do, for grain undoubtedly counts for something, but the need for a bat to have seven bands that are as even as the stripes on a Hove deckchair is no longer quite so important.

"I picked up one of the Surrey players' bats in the changing room very recently and I expected it to feel like a railway sleeper. Instead, I thought to myself that I could almost use that"
Micky Stewart

Lancashire's Tom Smith admits that he tends to go for bats with knots in the wood because he was once told that they were the best bits of timber. Waterton uses an anecdote from his own time as a county cricketer to illustrate the occasional limitations of mere appearances. "I went to a bat maker and he asked me whether I wanted a pretty bat or one that wasn't so good looking but 'went'," he said. "I chose the latter and it was a firecracker, it went like a bomb.

"It is true that you can get good bats from all grades of willow but the general rule is still that the higher the quality of the wood, the more likely you are to get a good one."

"It's all about performance and power, and the growth of T20 has aided that," said Mace. "Batsmen want big edges, a light pick-up and a bigger carry." The modern cricketer is also, many believe, better physically equipped to take a 2lb 9oz bat and do serious damage with it. Newbery's chief executive, Neil Lenham, a former Sussex batsman, points out that the current county player spends far more time in the gym than he and his counterparts did. "As a result, the bat speed created is probably greater than it has ever been in the history of the game."

All of which brings us to the Mongoose MMiR, the longer-handed, shorter-bladed bat that, so the argument goes, makes room for a bigger sweet spot and more weight though thicker edges, thus transferring more impact to the ball. Since the MMiR made its debut in 2009, Mongoose has added the conventionally shaped ToRQ to its range, and also the CoR3, a hybrid of the two other styles in which the standard-length blade is cut down by an inch and a half. The firm's marquee endorser is Marcus Trescothick, but Gareth Andrew and Brett D'Oliveira also use Mongoose bats, and more names are set to be unveiled in 2013.

"We saw the popularity of T20 and thought there was a gap in the market for a particular design," said David Tretheway, Mongoose's sales and marketing director. "Players were using the same bat for both T20 and Test cricket and yet the type of shots they were playing was very different. The need to help the attacking style gave birth to the short-bladed bat."

When the unconventional Mongoose was introduced, some thought it presaged a revolution in bat design. (In fact, the shape of the new bat in the blockhole was somewhat similar to that favoured by cricketers in the middle of the 18th century. Comparing the Mongoose to the bat held by the fresh-faced Lewis Cage in Francis Cotes' beguiling 1768 painting makes the point.)

It is probably fair to say that so far more players have used Mongoose bats in the nets than have taken them out to the middle. The English county cricketer can be a pretty conservative animal and batsmen the world over will do anything to prolong the life of a favourite willow with which they have scored a pile of runs. Nor is there any demand to limit the number of times a bat can be pressed. Which is probably fortunate, given that pressing techniques are so varied: commercial considerations mean that one bat maker won't let colleagues from other firms see the machine he uses to press bats.

The professionals, most of them anyway, are just as particular about their bats. Lancashire's Stephen Moore endorses Kookaburra, and his preparation is meticulous. "Kookaburra's main site is at Corby and I go down there and say what adjustments I'd like made," he said. "I use an extra short handle and they tinker with the toe a little bit. They're made precisely the way I like them, although I do tend to let them dry out a little bit more.

"When I get a bat, it might be 2lb 9 or 10oz, but by the time I've let it dry out in an airing cupboard it's about 2lb 8ozs. While I very seldom take one out of the wrapper and use it, I'll use tape or glue to keep a bat going if I've scored a lot of runs with it. Bear in mind that I bat at the top of the order, but I'll probably get through four or five bats a season, sometimes more."

Moore's habits and foibles needed little explanation to Micky Stewart, who must be a fair contender to be England's most forward-thinking 80-year-old. Despite having never used a bat weighing more than 2lb 5ozs - and powerful contemporaries like Peter May and Ken Barrington favoured willows of comparable weight - Stewart is entirely attuned to the approach of cricketers in the second decade of the 21st century.

"The ball can go off the edge of a modern-day bat and go for a two-bounce four," he said. "Or players can be caught at third man off the edge. You have sweepers on both boundaries now because that is where the ball goes. When I played, the best batsmen were strokers and placers of the ball, although Peter May and Ted Dexter were exceptions to that. I picked up one of the Surrey players' bats in the changing room very recently and I expected it to feel like a railway sleeper. Instead, I thought to myself that I could almost use that." (Quite so. Persuade an ex-player to pick up a cricket bat and he will wonder if a comeback is on the cards.)

Stewart's final statement that "so many of the top players absolutely murder the ball now" is a pithy summation of the dominant characteristic of current batting technique. So it is not surprising that the names given to bats have ballistic connotations. David Warner's current Gray-Nicolls is called the Kaboom, a word that could have been found in a balloon above the head of a very different batman. A Mongoose slogan is "See the ball, smash the ball." Thank you, Mr Graveney, we'll let you know.

Yet when it comes to bats, 21st-century cricketers make room for both folklore and fanglements. They are interested in new technologies and changing designs, but they still cling to adages and axioms passed down to them by their fathers' generation. The majority of bats may now be made in India but that does nothing to reduce the intimacy with which they are viewed by batsmen whose professional careers or deep recreational pleasure depend upon their performance. In Bat, Ball, Wicket and All Gerald Martineau recounts how James Broadbridge of Sussex carried his bat with him when out walking. Yorkshireman George Anderson took his to bed with him. And Daniel Day and John Bowyer of Mitcham were buried with theirs beside them. Death may have parted them from their wives but not from their willows.

Some of today's cricket widows might empathise, for some current players still lavish oodles of attention on their bats. Others take out a multi-room subscription and keep willows in the kitchen, living room, library, bedroom - and some even more private sancta. The profile of bats has changed, and will probably change again; the players' approach to the precious implements of their trade remains endearingly unaltered in all its slightly obsessive splendour.