So the inception of the cricket bat to its popular shape and form today is one of the major reasons we tend to see high scoring cricket games more often as thick and heavy bats make it possible for sliced and mishits clearing the boundary ropes with ease.
Cricket bats were first seen in print media in the late 18th century when under-arm bowling was the norm. Bats started off as resembling the shape of a hockey stick around two-hundred and fifty years ago. As you very well know, a cricket bat is the quintessential part of a batsman’s kit and an integral part of the game itself.
Due to initial designs of the bat varying and laws for the game next to nothing, the natural swing of the bat was horizontal as opposed to a more vertical approach in today’s game. The change in this approach was mainly due to the shape deviating for a hockey stick-like to a flat blade, which allowed the art of batting to essentially progress as timing, and aesthetic appeal became gained importance.
Laws had not yet prescribed what the limitations would be for a bat even in the early 19th century, hence the famous episode where an English batsman walked out to the stumps carrying a bat as thick as the stumps in 1771.
The MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) at that time stepped up and set out to write down laws and it became the first club to do so; the laws with respect to limitations on the size of the bat were accepted throughout the cricket playing community as well. Wood for the bat was the English willow due to it being immensely dense and by the late 19th century bat manufacturers started using sapwood which was lighter.
1870’s was the time when the contemporary shape of the bat started to become popular among batsmen as over-arm bowling was legal and focus was also being put on refining the construction of the blade for a smooth swing and improved play-ability. Some decades later, batsmen started focusing on timing, accuracy, touch etc rather than brute force since the bat had become increasingly lightweight and deft touches were appealing as well as lucrative in run scoring. Hard hitting did not always result in runs and there was the inherent lack of sophistication in the so called ‘gentlemen’s game’. The bat at this time, made out of English willow, is believed to be £5.
The British brought the game to the Asian subcontinent with them and it was an immensely popular sport here. Discovery of the Kashmiri willow as a definitive probability to manufacture bats was huge since bats now being manufactured in India and Pakistan are cheaper, with approximately the same weight as the English willow, albeit being slightly less durable under extreme use.
The process of manufacturing cricket bats became an art.
In order to understand what processes a plank of wood goes through to turn into a cricket bat, it is imperative to understand how the modern shape of the bat came to be. Bats used to be fairly straight and not bowed like they are now. The process has evolved greatly. It is said that modern bats are lighter in weight, but bigger in dimensions i.e. width and height than the ones used in the late 20th century. The modern day bat has a ridge on the back where the wood is the most dense hence creating the coveted sweet spot batsmen look for when hitting the ball. The ridge allows the bat to be stiffer, durable and it does not break or crack under heavy usage.
As per present day manufacturers, some of them make bats and sell them pre-knocked, others ask batsmen to knock them in after purchasing and before using to play heavy shots. Manufacturers often compress the wood before shaping it, however that often jars the shape of the bat when it is finally made. The general practice is to knock-in a new bat. Bats are knocked in using an old cricket ball or a rubber mallet. This is done over a couple of hours or until the fingernail does not leave a mark on the surface when pressed in, as a test.
If it does, it means that the bat requires more knocking in. Knocking in a bat helps the wood get stiffer, compress against its internal layers and there ensures there are no splinters when it is used to hit a ball, hard. The blade is also to receive a treatment of linseed oil before this process so that it settles in the minute gaps between the fibers and helps the wood retain its shape when it is being knocked-in. This is essential for any batsmen to do before professionally playing with it in the field.
Dennis Lille famously came to the field carrying an aluminum bat in 1979 once and upon complaints by the opposition that it damaged the ball, reverted to the traditional wooden one. That is when it was added to the laws that the blade of the bat has to be wood and no other material. The true purpose of the bat by manufacturers has been to increase the pick-up speed for the batsman through its lightweight and a larger sweet spot so that weaker players can play shots the same as the stronger ones can.
The handle of the bat is connect through a splice at the top of the blade itself. Manufacturers tried with longer handles, shorter blade and vice versa, but have settled for the happy medium where players are comfortable and the dimensions of the bat are also within the confinements set by the ICC in its rules. The rules now are flexible enough for mainstream international players to have bats custom made for them with some opting for lightweight and others choosing the opposite, according to their own style of play. The handle is made of cane, dried vine stems glued together in sections and coated in rubber. The player grips are shaped on a lathe and the other end attaches to the V in the blade that is cut for it. Since the international rules do not limit the degree of curve or bow, it is on the manufacturer and the player to decide what their style of play demands and what would increase the longevity of the bat to be used professionally.
The holy grail of cricket bats is one that is extremely bulky in its aesthetics, offering a façade, where as it is super light when picked up. The ridge or ‘swell’ of the bat is often lengthened as well to move the sweet hitting spot of the bat a little higher up for bouncy and uneven, unreliable pitches such as the ones down under and in South Africa. Subcontinent and Asian pitches demand heavier bats with their sweet spots in the lower half of the bat, nearing the bottom. As players work on their technique meticulously, it is possible that the traditional cricket bat goes through further modifications to meet the demands of contemporary batsmen.
Kookaburra experimented with a graphite-reinforced bat as well that Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey used; the experiment did not take off though. David Warner is another famous example where the enormity of his bat size essentially unbalanced the equation between the bat and ball. His bat was 85mm at its thickest part and the rules were then amended to limit that to 67 mm in depth; the maximum dimensions to be 67mm in depth, 400 edges and 108 mm in width. The splice of the bat used to be its weak aspect and one would see batsmen often standing with the handle in hand the blade flying through the air after hitting a shot; manufacturers have been able to fix that largely.
The fact remains that batsmen, the playing conditions, the pitches will remain the deciding and influencing factors in shaping how bats are constructed and used and modified over the years, as they have in the past. As I iterated earlier as well, the thicker bats of today are the reason that around 60% of runs scored in an innings are through boundaries which is far more to what this percentage was throughout the 20th century.
I hope this exercise leaves you with some answers and insight into how bats are made, what the processes are as well as some of its interesting history. Don’t forget I have written a complete hands-on review of the top rated cricket bats right now, where I have outlined all the difference things to look out for and technologies used in the bats.