New bats mean new batting styles, 1985

The equipment revolution

In just ten years our image of the Test batsman has changed dramatically. Perhaps distance lends enchantment, but when we reach for a picture of the past we tend to produce, in our mind's eye, someone like Bradman or Compton or Edrich. We see the twinkling feet, and wristy sweeps, hooks and cuts. Nimble is a word we associate with the players of yesteryear, and one which we rarely use now.

The picture we have of today's Test batsman is of someone standing tall and quite still. He wears a helmet, and almost every part of his body (at least on the side which faces the bowler) is protected, the latest addition being a forearm guard. Yet this padding is not over-voluminous; and it does not stop him running quickly between the wickets. Our man's bat may well be raised in advance of the ball being delivered and when it descends it does so firmly, without flourish. From this short downward movement of the bat we are used to seeing the ball travel quite quickly into the area between mid-wicket and square leg for - typically - a comfortably 2 runs.

The model for our modern picture is, if you like, the opening batsman, Chris Broad. Of course, other players will bat differently; but the pattern is changing. Certainly at the highest level there is now a different style of batting, and it is clear that it has been influenced by changes in equipment - in particular, bats.

In the mid-1970s the weight of bats had for long been standard, at something around 2¼ pounds; and the shape of the bat had altered very little since the early century. The parameters of length and width were, after all, laid down in the Laws of Cricket and the only area in which manufactures sought to gain a little advantage was in the springing of handles. Then, in 1974, the long-established bat-makers, Gray-Nicolls, cautiously introduced a bat which they probably feared would offend many traditionalists. The bat, which could be called by no other name than the Scoop, drew its inspiration from the heel-and-toe-weighted golf putter invented by a South African, Dr Arthur Garner. An Englishman named Barry Wheeler, who had some knowledge of physics and was also the agent for an American golf-ball manufacturer, concluded that the perimeter-weighting principle could be applied equally well to cricket bats. By making the centre of the bat's back concave instead of ridge-like, the weight saved could be pushed towards the edges, thus effectively widening the bat's middle. Ian Chappell was a prominent early exponent of the new bat, the demand for which was startling in the first year it was sold in earnest, 1975. Cricket shops could not get enough of them. In that one year alone Gray-Nicolls had to tear up 8,000 orders which they could not fulfil.

The immediate consequence was that other bat-makers - and there were very soon more of them - began to think anew about the shape of cricket bats. Weight could be spread by other means than grooving out the back (for the Scoop had been patented). The hump could simply be flattened and pushed towards the edges. Weight could be moved from higher up the blade, including a fluting of the edges so that these were thicker at the bottom than near the shoulders.

Bats began to bulge at the business end. Heaviness seemed to become almost a greater virtue than balance, and thicker handles were made to help lift these bats. Some amused onlookers began to talk of railway sleepers and to wonder if bats were going to revert to the club-like shapes of the game's origins. It was recalled that in 1820, when William Ward made 278 at Lord's (a score not bettered on that ground for the next 105 years) he used a bat said to weigh over four pounds.

The heaviest of the new bats of the 1970s went above three pounds, which was nearly a 30 per cent weight increase. One was the 31b 4oz bat (a true weight according to its maker, Duncan Fearnley, because it did not have a thick handle) which Glenn Turner employed in his innings of 311 not out at Worcester in 1982. Turner, a relatively slight figure, argued that if a heavy bat was picked up straight it was less likely to go off line as it came down than a lighter bat might be. He thought of it as a heavy pendulum. Bigger men who have used heavy bats are Clive Lloyd, Ian Botham and Clive Rice. Some also employ the early backlift in which the bat is up and waiting as the bowler delivers. Accordingly, the ball has on occasion (and especially on Sundays) been hit very hard indeed - harder, in the opinion some, than ever before.

In the process, a different range of shots has emerged. Fewer cuts, pulls and hooks - the hook, in particular - are made, but more are played in the arc between extra cover and mid-on. Indeed, 6s or one-bounce 4s over cover are no longer a great rarity. Another popular sector is the one between square leg and mid-wicket. There is the shot off the legs which races along the ground and rattles the fence in that area; there is the pick-up over mid-wicket; and there is the drive which is mis-hit, but with sufficient power for the ball to squeeze through mid-wicket for runs.

These, of course, are shots which are made with a single, uncomplicated movement that is essentially downward. The wrists do not have to do much at all. Compare that with the movement required for what might now be regarded as the old fashioned square cut, for which the bat comes down on top of the ball. That shot is now much less popular than the other oft-termed cut, which is simply a backfoot hit through the covers or square of the wicket - and which is much the easier of the two shots to play with a heavy bat.

The problem for coaches everywhere is that other players, especially youngsters, have struggled to wield bats that are much too heavy for them. It is a trend deplored by the National Coach, Les Lenham, and also at the Gover Cricket School in London. Lenham recalls somewhat wistfully that Denis Compton once said he liked his bat to feel like a wand. At Gover's they notice the contrast when visiting Indian and Pakistani players come to practise, with their lighter bats and twirling strokes.

At last, though, there are clear signs that the weight of bats is no longer going upwards. Moreover, bat-makers realise that there is a gap in the market, indeed a demand for a lightweight bat. Several plan to introduce one into their range for 1985. But the quest for new ideas is unlikely to stop. It has already produced a bat with small holes in it, a laminated bat with many segments glued together, and a bat with no shoulders; and it has produced names like Magnum, Master, Maestro, Excalibur, Galaxy, Executive.

Where will the next push come from? Some bat-makers have looked again at the handle, introducing steel or fibre-glass, but most now seem to accept cane and rubber as the tried-and-tested combination. Perhaps the manufacturers will look instead at the advances made in the Protection Business, where there has also been innovation. This started with the Tony Greig glove, a one-piece gauntlet. The argument was that the fingers did not need to separate one from the other; and, even if many batsmen do like to experience this feeling, the introduction of the one-piece glove inspired many changes. There are now gloves in which just the first two, most vulnerable, fingers are kept together under heavy padding; gloves in which all the fingers are housed separately but then joined together either partially or completely; and gloves in which the fingers are pre-bent.

More importantly, the padding which protects the fingers has improved markedly from the days of rubber-spiked gloves (an item which lasted for many decades but was discontinued fifteen years ago). Cotton-waste has been the standard filling in the rolled gloves - a material perhaps not entirely commensurate with the high-technology age but one which is in plentiful supply in India and Pakistan, where most gloves are made. Now, British manufacturers have introduced PVC foam, which has higher shock-absorbency qualities coupled with lightness, and the leading name in the field, Frank Bryan, has even found it cost-effective to make such gloves in England.

Leg-guards ( pads) may no longer be filled with elk hair, covered in best buck skin and have the straps hand-sewn, but they have become lighter and more resilient. And the better materials do not add greatly to cost, allowing even the cheapest leg-guards to offer extra padding across knee and lower leg. Furthermore, today's schoolboy or club batsman will have a thigh pad in his cricket bag, when once only first-class cricketers owned such specialist equipment. The helmet, also, is slowly gaining ground at this level.

But the bat is the item on which most attention will be focused. The innovators will keep experimenting. Some may even follow the example of protective equipment and try to find alternative materials. If non-wood bats are banned, then perhaps an equally resilient but cheaper wood could be found to challenge the hitherto unique willow. Most cricketers, though, will probably go on paying what they are asked to pay for a new, gleaming, white sword which promises to fulfil all their dreams. The top bat in the shops in 1985 is expected to cost £75.

© John Wisden & Co