September 9, 2015

The man behind Excalibur

The story of the unique bat Lance Cairns used to launch six sixes at the MCG and its designer, John Guy, the former New Zealand batsman

John Guy poses with the Excalibur bat used by Lance Cairns in 1983 © Brydon Coverdale/ESPNcricinfo

"Cairns there, hitting it with only one hand. And in spite of the fact he hits it with one hand, it still goes over the longest boundary at the MCG for six."

Those were the words of Frank Tyson, incredulous, commentating the remarkable innings of Lance Cairns in a one-day international in 1983. Cairns struck six sixes that day against Australia, including his one-handed effort against Dennis Lillee. His 21-ball fifty was at the time the fastest in ODI history. And just as memorable as the feat itself was the sight of the strange bat with which it was achieved.

Shoulder pads were a fashion statement in the 1980s, but in cricket it was quite the opposite: the Excalibur bat used by Cairns had no shoulders at all. He looked less a cricketer holding a bat than a caveman wielding a club. And where is that Excalibur bat now? Not with Cairns. He gifted it back to the man who designed it, and Excalibur now lives in suburban Melbourne.

A left-hand batsman who excelled against spin, John Guy played 12 Tests for New Zealand in the 1950s and '60s. His employment with Shell made him move around a lot - he played for five of the six New Zealand domestic provinces - until he bought a sports store, and after that moved into the bat industry working for Newbery.

And propped up in a corner of his living room is one of the most famous Newbery bats of all. Now 81, Guy taps Cairns' Excalibur on the ground and simulates a couple of shots. Then he hands the bat over; it is heavy, and, counter-intuitively, for a bat without shoulders, all the weight feels like it is towards the top. It feels different. It looks different. It is different.

The design originated in England, where Guy observed a Newbery bat with what he calls a "dry knot" - a darker, weaker section of the willow - in its shoulder. Guy wondered out loud to John Newbery, the master bat maker, whether the bat would split if a ball hit that dry knot. Yes, Newbery said, the shoulder would fly right off. But what could they do about it?

"I said, 'What if we shave it?' So that's what we did," Guy says. "We shaved the shoulder down and I said, 'I think that's a good idea for a bat'. Newbery said: 'What would you call it? It's got to be something like a sword'. I said it felt like a heavy wand. He said, 'What about King Arthur, Excalibur'. I said, 'You've hit the nail on the head, it sounds great'."

Thus the Excalibur was born.

"I always felt that I wasn't wanted in the New Zealand team. I came from a small city in New Zealand. You're not one of the majors, you're not mixing with the others so much"
John Guy

"It was just a marketing ploy," Guy admits when asked if there were any real advantages to the bat. "Although if you have no shoulders, you can't get caught off the shoulder of the bat."

Guy could talk about bats and batting technique all day. He watches the game as closely now as ever. He likes what he sees from some of the current crop of New Zealand players, but despairs at the state of batting coaching in the modern game.

Guy is not shy to say what he thinks, and he is a shrewd analyst. The then-coach John Wright invited Guy to fly to Hobart in 2011 to speak to the New Zealand team before their Test against Australia. They had just lost the first Test at the Gabba and Wright wanted to find a way to build up the confidence of his men.

"I just built the whole talk around the fact that no one is inferior without their consent," Guy says. "I pointed out that they consented in Brisbane because they dropped seven catches. If they catch the blooming thing, they can win the game.

"I said on this wicket the Australians are going to bowl short and flat and try to knock your head off, because it's as green as the outfield. But you've got to bowl line and length. The Australians will get frustrated because they can't whack you around. And what happened? Doug Bracewell bowled 20-odd overs and got 6 for 40."

And New Zealand won the match, their first Test victory in Australia since 1985. Guy was a national selector in the 1980s, but that stint ended around the same time that he lost money in a business deal that turned sour. But he remains involved in making bats and other equipment, retaining the sporting interest that was sparked as a young man in Nelson.

He was 12th man when New Zealand were famously bowled out for a record low total of 26 against England at Eden Park in March 1955 - "We were in the game until the top went off the wicket," he says - and made his Test debut later that year in Dhaka. Facing Fazal Mahmood and his colleagues on the matting pitch was a challenge, but Guy helped bat out an admirable draw.

The team then moved on to India and Guy, who had debuted at No. 7, was shifted up to first drop by the captain, Harry Cave*. Mind you, Cave took some convincing from broadcaster Iain Gallaway, who rated Guy highly and had the ear of Walter Hadlee.

"Gallaway said I should be batting higher, because they had a couple of good spinners and the guys batting up there couldn't play spin as well as me," Guy says. "I go to the ground the next day and the captain says, 'I believe you're not happy batting at No. 7'. I said, 'Well, you always have me batting at No. 3 for Central Districts and I haven't done too bad'. He said, 'Right, you're batting at 3, and if you get out you're on the first plane home. I ended up batting for seven hours."

Cricket bat sans shoulder: Lance Cairns could clear the "G" one-handed © Getty Images

Guy scored 102 in that innings in Hyderabad; he made 52 and 91 later in the series, but never scored another Test century. His success in India came from having learnt how to face spin from Leslie Townsend, an Englishman who moved to New Zealand to coach.

"He used to bowl and get me to read his hand, how to go down the wicket," Guy says. "Your first step has got to be a big one, not a little wee shuffle and then try to compensate by extending later on. You go big first and then adjust.

"The other thing was that he also taught me the same way as the Indians bat: hit into the line of spin, not with the spin. If you think of the logistics of that, it's pretty sound, because if you hit with the spin you're turning your bat, but hitting it against the spin you hit with the full face."

But Guy's success in India did not translate into a long period in the Test team. When New Zealand toured England in 1958, Guy made his way there as well. Not with the squad, though.

"I worked my way to England as a steward on board a cargo ship that also took 12 passengers," he says. "I was serving tables and looking after them."

In England, he secured a county deal with Northamptonshire, but the New Zealand management objected to one of their own playing against them in a tour match. When Northamptonshire hosted the New Zealanders, Guy played anyway, and made 43 not out before his captain, Raman Subba Row, declared overnight.

Guy's cards were not exactly marked - he played four more Tests, back home and in South Africa, over the next three years - but he was disillusioned.

"I always felt that I wasn't wanted in the New Zealand team. I came from a small city in New Zealand. You're not one of the majors, you're not mixing with the others so much."

But Guy kept playing first-class cricket until he was 38, and has the distinction of having played for every provincial side but Auckland.

"Shell transferred me from Christchurch to Dunedin to Wellington to Blenheim to Gisborne." Consequently, he played for Central Districts, then Canterbury, then Otago, then Wellington, then back to Central Districts again, then on to Northern Districts to finish his career.

Then came bat-making, selecting New Zealand teams, a move to Melbourne, and an ongoing love of cricket that seems unquenchable. He likes the look of Kane Williamson, Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi, Ben Wheeler and a few others. He'll watch almost any match that is on TV (and find a way to see some that aren't), and keeps cricket memorabilia all around the house.

And, of course, Excalibur takes pride of place.

* 0500 GMT, September 10: Corrected from John Reid.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

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