The snow has barely melted and temperatures are climbing only slowly in the wind chill. A traditional start for the English cricket season then, though the weather ran it close.
So far so obvious, and the climate conditions seems will play an integral part in early selections for the national and county sides, with seam bowlers taking the chance to make their mark.
Otherwise once things turn warmer (fingers crossed) and the wickets dry out, selection policy will switch to focus more on spin bowling.
But in most people’s opinion, the game still seems to be dominated by the willow, more so now with the prevalence of lucrative T20 leagues around the world, from the IPL to the Big Bash. Due to these tournaments and others, the advantage has switched firmly and unequivocally towards the batsman; most bowlers, myself included, will vouch for that. Bats get bigger and stronger, wickets are mostly covered, and one-day technique reaches into the longer form of the game. What advantage does the poor bowler have now? Not much.
This in turn has had an effect bat manufacturers. Due to the nature of the shorter version of the game and its more attacking and unconventional stroke play, batsmen now want bats that are lighter but larger and more powerful.
There is no legal limit to what the thickness of the edges should be and this is now being discussed by the MCC to see if any limitations can be set on not just the width and length (Say the Laws of Cricket: “The overall length of the bat, when the lower portion of the handle is inserted, shall not be more than 38 in/96.5 cm. The width of the bat shall not exceed 4.25 in/10.8 cm at its widest part.” No mention of whether it can be the thickness of a rail sleeper.)
Many, most probably long-suffering bowlers getting cricks in their neck from watching good deliveries fly to boundary off mishits, seem to think the batsman has an unfair advantage. And this in part is due to the innovation shown by batmakers.
This has been realized to good effect especially in the warmer climates such as India and Australia, where the IPL is a cricketing phenomenon and one tournament can benefit players financially for life. Players want the best (or at least most suitable) equipment (especially bat). This triggers a domino effect, with fans and amateur club players wanting the same kit as their idols. One such bat manufacturer who has been inundated with requests for the newer Indian-styled bats is Gray Nicholls.
G. J. Nicholls started his trade at his workshop in Robertsbridge, Sussex, in 1876 later merging with G.J. Gray (world racquets champion) and Sons who had been manufacturing racquets since 1855. They became known as Gray Nicholls from the 1940s and now have bases in Australia and most recently in India. Many great Test batsmen have used their bats, most notably Brian Lara in the ‘90s, breaking quite a few records in the process. Add to that Ted Dexter in the ‘60s, and Matthew Hayden of Australia, Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook of late just to name a few.
Batmaker Alex Hohenkirk has been with the company in Robertsbridge for five years. He showed me the bat-making process, including something I’d not seen before – placing the bats in something like an oven to dry the willow and dissipate any excess moisture This reduces the weight, but without losing much of its “oomph”.
“Players now want larger profiles on their bats but with minimal weight so they can pull and hook more easily. They are quite finely balanced, surfaces are now more flat, from an average 3.10Ib cleft you will lose about 1lb of willow once completed,” explained Alex.
Some bats have edges that are as thick as 41 mm as there is no legal limit yet. Alex said he once made a bat with edges as large as 56 mm, getting on for half the width of the face itself, such are the demands of the modern day cricketer.
WG Grace would never have edged it with one of these beasts. Some bats are unrecogniable from their equivalents from as recently as 10 years ago. These new developments might have increased bat effectiveness, but have they shortened the life span? The more grain the bat has, the better the stroke but possibly the shorter the shelf life. Wide-grained willow will last longer.
This may not be good for the consumer, as top-quality bats can range from £200 to anywhere above £500. Willow is becoming rare, and though the larger manufacturers have their own sets of trees and reserves, this may not be the case for the smaller manufacturers who buy their willow elsewhere.