January 4, 2012 10:22 pm

Bats about competing with the big names

How does a cricket fan bide their time during this bleak weather especially with alternatives few and far between – distant pictures of India succumbing to Australia in the wee small hours notwithstanding. At least there is the pending Gulf series between England and Pakistan in the offing.

With new year sales on, the retail experience could alleviate any short-term withdrawal issues. But what do you buy the cricket fanatic who has everything? Gadgets? In this era we have some that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ian Fleming novel - digital radios to keep up with TMS, those dog ball throwers so beloved of net coaches? No, the only retail that would appeal is the one that involves some type of cricket merchandise, as new equipment is always showcased by most of the manufacturers for the following season quite early on. So the time might be ripe to buy something new and innovative, so if I couldn’t play to the fullest of my abilities, at least I would look the part.

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An answer to prayers about my boredom came from Kent and Pakistan all-rounder Azhar Mahmood, who invited me along to see his own batmaker at their workshop in Kent. How could I not jump at a chance of seeing how cricket bats are made and how one wielded by a professional varies from one us ordinary mortals purchase from the local sports shop.

We arrived in the small village of Appledore, a lovely name that wouldn’t be amiss in a JRR Tolkien book. At first glance I was stunned by the amount of sheep that I saw, hardly a person in sight until we reached the small but very tidy Hell4leather workshop. Not a name I would expect to see on cricket equipment, but the title was conceived in a pub, we were later informed. Mahmood was here to pick up and return some bats, as he is off to New Zealand to play for Auckland in a Twenty20 tournament. I was there just to see how it all comes together.

Once in the workshop we were greeted by the very patient Matt Barton, the master batmaker and proprietor of the company. Barton, a carpenter by profession and a keen club cricketer with an unhealthy passion for the game, set up the company five years ago. Never formally taught by anybody how to make bats, his skills were self-taught from videos on the internet. Courses were too expensive, and if one knows the basics of carpentry, how hard could it be to make a bat. I certainly wasn’t going to argue with that statement judging by the amount of beautifully crafted bats all around me. Barton started off by supplying small local clubs and by word of mouth and a few cricket centuries later, his reputation spread to the county and international scene.

Matt churns out in the region of 500 bats a year, not many if you look at the output of the well-known larger brands, the Gunn & Moores and Gray Nicolls, but his point was that he believed in quality over quantity. Mahmood agreed wholeheartedly with this, as he said that these were some of the best bats he has played with in his career. Just watching the master batmaker put the finishing touches on some of the willow selected by the player proved his point. It all depends on the grain and the age of the willow, the narrower the grain the more mature it is, thus making the bat surface much harder. Most batsmen will check for this when acquiring a bat, it is their main tool, the one thing that will decide how he (or she) will perform.

Bats were graded, the best being 1 - the grade mostly supplied to the professional or serious club player.

Willow prices have been increasing across the world due to its growing scarcity, hence most quality bats will sell in the region of £200. Hell4Leather’s willow is all home-grown and supplied by various companies, though Barton has planted some sets of his own, which will mature in 15 to 20 years, saving future expenditure.

The company has acquired all the modern technical tools to complete bats with a quick turnaround. Long gone is the cone-shaped handle that is alleged to help players put on a new grip; now there are instruments that create a vacuum around the handle to place the grip on within seconds, something that wouldn’t be out of place at Nasa. Linseed oil, another product from a bygone era, is now replaced by fibre scuff sheets that cover the edges of the bat faces, and give it durability and protection. And no more knocking the bat in as there are now automated processes for this.

I was given the option to pick a bat, but couldn’t decide. I was like a child in a toyshop mulling over all the varieties, whilst Mahmood took six of the finest blades I saw there. This definitely cheered up a bleak December afternoon, even if I didn’t come away with a bat, meeting another fellow fanatic was worthwhile, whilst gaining an insight into the world of the batmaker.

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