After the resounding success of "What's Inside a Cricket Ball?" it is time for round two of this fascinating series—how are cricket bats made?
In his play The Real Thing, the Czech-born English playwright Tom Stoppard, although actually referring to writing, said this about the cricket bat:
This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might...travel.
These eloquent words make the cricket bat sound so simple, but it that so? Let's take a closer look at what goes into manufacturing these cherished pieces of wood.
While the origins of cricket can be traced back to the early 16th century, the oldest bat on record, currently displayed in the Sandham Room at the Oval in London, dates back to 1729 and looks more like a hockey stick than the extended rectangle of today's devices.
However, as the main photo of this article shows, the overall shape and feel hasn't really changed too much over the years.
Every cricket fan has heard the descriptive cliche "the sound of leather on willow" a billion times, and of course, bats are made of that genus of wood.
But the blades used in cricket are carved specifically from white willow, or more specifically salix alba, which is native to Europe and western and central Asia.
This wood, while being light in weight, is tough and shock resistant—meaning it can handle the high-speed impact of a cricket ball without splintering on impact.
The video above is perhaps a much more interesting way of illuminating the step-by-step process involved in creating one of these beautiful pieces of sports equipment.
But loosely, the method is as follows:
- A trunk of willow is shaped into roughly cricket bat-sized chunks known as clefts. Before being carved into a more familiar-looking bat shape, their ends are dipped in wax, and they are air-dried for up to a year.
- At this point, the clefts are graded into four levels, which is done by a master craftsman inspecting the bat. Criteria include the straightness of the grain, width of the grain, any blemishes etc. It is worth noting that, while a Grade 1 bat will probably look superior, there is no guarantee that it will actually play better than, say, a lower-ranked Grade 4 bat.
- Then the bat goes through the pressing process, where the it is slowly compressed into shape via a machine.
- The blade is then spliced at the top and a handle attached, which is key in providing the almost spring-like capabilities of the bat.
- Once the shoulders have been cut out, more specific alterations are made to the timber by hand, such as rounding off the toe and filing away unnecessary pieces.
- After the edges and face have been sanded down, the bat is polished by a bee's wax compound, which helps to keep moisture out and let linseed oil in.
- The handle is bound by string, and modern additions such as the rubber grip and maker's stickers are applied.
And, albeit much simplified, that is it. But don't forget to knock those bats in!
Many variations on the classic design have emerged over the years, most famously with Dennis Lillee's outrageous aluminium blade used in the 1979 Ashes...for a short period anyway, until it was banned.
More recently, the Twenty20 explosion has given birth to numerous bats, the most well known of which is the Mongoose. The oddly named blade's extra-long handle and smaller hitting surface supposedly provides more bat speed and a much bigger sweet spot.
Quite clearly, bats are continuing to get bigger. Although they are governed by rules on size—the length of the bat may be no more than 38 inches and the width 4.25 inches—there is no limit on weight or depth.
Thus, with increases in technology, manufacturers have been able to make much thicker bats, which are still relatively light and easy for players to use. This fascinating video with former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar sheds more information on this issue.
And as the cricket ball has barely changed at all, the game seems to be weighted, more and more, in favour of the batters. Sure, everyone likes to see big hits, and the money-spinning T20 format practically relies on them, but the game has to remain a contest.
So it will be interesting to see if anything changes about the makeup of cricket bats sometime soon.