The art of bat making

THAT cricket is a game where one is learning all the time, was brought out to me when hearing the discussion on bats and bat-making between Ian Chappell and Dennis Lindsay. We were at the poolside of the Cricket Club of India for a dinner after the Ceat International Awards ceremony and it was quite an education to listen to both of them talk about cricket and bat making in particular. Ian Chappell has probably forgotten more about cricket than some of us know and Dennis Lindsay who had a magnificent series against the Australians in 1966-67 has been a bat maker for some time after retiring from the game. He had come to receive the Team of the Year Award on behalf of the South African side.

For a batsman the bat is the most important tool of his craft and if he gets one which he feels comfortable with, it transmits itself in the manner in which he goes to bat. Every batsman has his own likes and dislikes, his own fetish about the weight, balance, pick-up, the number of grips on the handles and the grains on the willow. Frankly when one is a schoolboy, one is not particular about all these things, for bats are not cheap and a schoolboy is happy to play with any bat that he gets, even if he is not able to pick a proper one and finds it a bit heavy.

Coaches tell you to leave the bat facing the ground and then pick it up as if one would want to chop some wood but that is good for the correct grip, but if it is going to be a badly balanced bat then the chopping action is going to go awry and that's why even though a player may get the correct grip he may not be able to get the ball off the square if his bat is not good.

While Lindsay did not go into the merits of the willow to be used, it is universally accepted that the English willow is the best in business. The Kashmir willow also is good but pretty fragile and if you are rich enough to afford using more than one bat, then the Kashmir willow is your answer. The ball does seem to go off a Kashmir willow more sweetly than off an English willow. Of course, if you are unlucky, you could be using the stronger English willow and yet break the bat first ball if you get a yorker right on the toe of the bat.

With the attitude to batting changing as more and more one-day cricket is being played, the features of bats have also changed. The earlier generation, that is the pre-one-day generation preferred to use lighter bats so that they could employ the horizontal bat shots like the cut, pull and hook. The odd exception for heavy bats then, used to be the bowlers, and quick bowlers at that, for they had the powerful hands for the heavy bats and they used those heavy bats to try and clobber the ball out of the ground. It was only the odd regular batsman who used a heavy bat and heavy in those days meant a bat weighing 2.6 oz or so.

Today, of course the 2.6 pounds bat is called a light bat as batsmen are using bats weighing 2.10 plus. Even here it's the balance that is important. Pick-up Tendulkar's bat and you will find that though it is 2.12 plus, it is balanced so well that there is no strain on the wrists and the forearms. On the other hand, try and pick up Lance Klusener's bat which is about 3 lbs in weight and you will not be able to lift it because in his case the weight is concentrated at the bottom of the bat unlike the little champion's where the weight is evenly spread and thus easy to pick up.

If in earlier days the English bat manufacturers were the best, today those from the sub-continent, especially India make better bats than the ones in England. Kailash Anand of Sanspareils Greenlands is the best bat maker in the world, but that's of course only my opinion. Duncan Fearnley was another bat maker who made superb bats and I made it a point to visit his factory to get my bats made. There he would take you to the logs of willow stacked up and give you a choice. Those logs were heavy and he would give a ball and ask you to choose the part of the log from where he could make the bat. So if you chose the top part then he would use that even if it meant that the rest of the log had to be discarded. Perhaps he then used the remaining part to make bats for kids but considering this was the best and most expensive willow, somehow I doubt it. The ball going nicely off the bat was his greatest reward and of course he gets publicity as well.

At the highest level apart from the weight, pick up, balance, the grains on the bat face are important. The closer the grains and if they are about 14 to 18 grains then the longer the bat should last and that is what the professionals will use, especially those who do not have bat contracts. Otherwise in terms of stroke-making, the ideal number of grains on the bat should be about 8 to 10 and nicely and evenly spaced the better.

All these things were fascinating to hear as Chappell and Lindsay spoke and though one knew most of them, it still was an education to hear about the special care taken for the strengthening of the inside edge part of the bat, the springs that went into the bat handle, the curve of the toe of the bat. Of course, various bat makers and their skills were also discussed but at the end it is the individual preference and comfort that is the bottom line. Not every player has a rapport with the bat maker. Some players can be too fussy and turn the bat maker off but some may just want some minimum and once the bat maker knows that then he can make bats, which are virtually clones of the others.

One thing for sure is whether one gets a great bat or an ordinary one, it is temperament that is going to be the deciding factor. If you have the temperament it really shouldn't matter which bat you have got in hand!