Written by Ben Pomeroy
Cricket bats are probably one of, if not the most important piece of equipment you will need to play the game we all love. They have become such a statement for a player with brands sponsoring players to use their equipment, and they really do vary in shapes and sizes. The difference in bats when you’re looking back just 50 years is staggering, let alone a couple of hundred.
The earliest cricket bat discovered is thought to be from the 16th century. However the game it was used for was far different from the one we know today, in fact it is thought to have been used to hit the fielders in order for them to miss or drop the ball. Something I’m sure we all wish we could do from time to time as we lob one off to a man inside the ring. The shape of the bat is also somewhat unusual for what we have to come to know as the standard shape, for what can only be described as a ‘hockey-stick’ like shape, it is very different to those produced in the next stages of its development.
It wasn’t until the late 1700s and early 1800s did the cricket bat start to gain some rectangularity. The shape we now know was starting to be introduced around this time, which was also the time bowlers were allowed to start rolling their arm over, something synonymous with cricket. These bats were still varying from match to match as there were no formal guidelines or regulations a bat would have to follow meaning you could do whatever you really wanted with it, provided you had the money! Historians believe that around this time, still late 1700s, a cricket bat would cost a player around £5, which is worth around £500 in current money. This was about 55 days wages too, so cricket was still very much a game for the wealthy, after all you could purchase an entire cow or a few sheep for that price!
Around this time also, regulations started to be introduced by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which was founded in 1787. The first one of its kind was regulating the maximum width a cricket bat could have after an Englishman playing for Ryegate, walked out to bat with a piece of wood wider than the stumps themselves, something I wish I could do every week. As bowlers were starting to develop and become quicker the bat also had to adapt and move away from the one solid piece of willow that had been there for decades. Instead opting for a spliced handle that is still seen in every bat today.
In 1835 the next restriction was implemented onto players and bat manufacturers, to do with the length. 38 inches was the maximum length a bat could be, something that is still enforced to this date.
Five years later in 1840, a spring was seen inside a handle for the first time which allowed a bit more punch of the bat and a bit more flexibility between the face of the bat and the handle. It is thought that this was initially made from whalebone, but then later Indian rubber. Materials and construction were refined every year to incorporate the new speeds bowlers were reaching and the degrees of freedom batsmen were after in their innings’. Back then English Willow was main wood used in all cricket bats and still is now. There was a brief period where English willow trees were planted in Australia and other countries, in order to try and make manufacturing easier, however these all failed. It is also believe that these bats were weighing in at around 5 pounds, over double the weight of most modern cricket bats, as they were solely manufactured from the heartwood found in the centre of willow trees.
By the late 1800s there had started to be a few more bat manufacturers in England, one of which being Bussey. This company marks a relatively significant change in the history of bats being made as they made the decision to try and experiment with sapwood, commonly known as ‘white willow’. This type of English willow was preferred due to its lightness, therefore making it easier to wield and play different shots with. Shots such as the leg glance were developed primarily as a result of these new lighter clefts being used in manufacture. These lighter and slimmer bats were being used all around the world and cricketers such as Kumar Ranjitsinhji and Victor Trumper were huge advocates for these relatively straight profiled bats. But it wasn’t until the Don Bradman and Wally Hammond era where the heavier bats were trialled again. Don Bradman at one point was using a bat weighing in at 2lbs 2oz, significantly lighter than any bat found today and this seemed to be the norm for early 20th century cricketers. These bats suited the players though, as around this time the 5 day test match was introduced alongside the unlimited time test match meaning survival was far more important than a high run rate.
The actual design and shapes of cricket bats didn’t really change between the late 1800’s and the mid 1900’s and it wasn’t until batsmen such as Graeme Pollock started using a 3lbs causing a stir again in the bat world. Cuts, hooks and glances were put away again due to the heavier bats however the six hitting potential was hugely increased, something that is needed with the dawn of limited overs cricket fast approaching.
Bat manufacturers also started looking at other sports too when shaping their profiles and giving out their bats to players. Gray Nicholls for example took inspiration from golfers when they created their ‘Super Scoop’ cricket bat. Taking weight out of the middle and leaving it on the edges was supposed to decrease the weight of the bat without risking any integrity of the bat itself.
Nowadays bat manufacturers are all trying their different ways of creating the tools we use in the modern game as machinery and techniques have advanced. The birth of T20 cricket alone changed the way we look and view a cricket bat, as well as the way they are made. Now the willow is pressed a lot less allowing it to retain the lightweight feel with more willow actually staying on the bat. One thing is for sure, the modern day bat is here for a good time, not a long time but I am sure it will continue to adapt as the entire game does over the next few decades and centuries.