No true cricketing enthusiast ever forgets his first bat. Mine – aside from a brief flirtation with a plastic effort from the local supermarket whose handle separated from the rest of the blade as it followed a misjudged cover drive into the neighbours’ garden – was a Gray-Nicolls Powerspot.
It was the summer of 1989, and I had reached the dizzying heights of captain of my school’s under-9½ team. My parents generously rewarded me with a bat of my own before the first match. I rewarded them by getting out for a golden duck and leading my team to an ignominious seven-wicket defeat. For some reason I still have the bat today, signed by my long-suffering team mates and proudly displayed in my childhood bedroom.
Tomorrow, England come to Lord’s to play their second Test against Sri Lanka, the beginning of the season providing a reminder, if any were needed, that cricket does something strange to otherwise normal people. Even for rank amateurs such as myself, a bat is not just a bat. It is a symbol, a totem, a magic wand, a nostalgic memento of past (exaggerated) glories, an (unlikely) promise of better innings to come. Pick it up and close your eyes and you’re no longer a fool dreaming in front of his bedroom mirror; you’re Alastair Cook, in front of a packed crowd, at the home of cricket, flicking Lakmal off your legs for four…
For proper cricketers, choosing the right bat is much more important than life or death. Or at least they think it is, alone at the crease with only their demons for company as the bowler steams in to unleash a leather ball at their nether regions at 95mph.
Gray-Nicolls, in its various incarnations, has been making bats for more than 150 years, serving such diverse household names as Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ted Dexter, Richie Benaud, Sunil Gavaskar, David Boon and Edward VII. There are other manufacturers of cricket bats, but none has quite the resonance of Gray-Nicolls. For an excitable cricket fan, therefore, visiting the small museum at its factory in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, is the equivalent of, say, Silvio Berlusconi making the acquaintance of Hugh Hefner.
You can barely move here for the weight of history. On the wall is a letter from the great WG Grace, thanking them for the bat with which he scored his 100th century in May 1894. Leant against a door is a signed bat from David Gower saying how much he’d enjoyed using it in the 1983 World Cup. Brian Lara used a Gray-Nicolls Scoop 2000 in June 1994 when he scored the highest ever first-class innings of 501 for Warwickshire against Durham.
Today’s professionals don’t, of course, come to Robertsbridge for the history. They come for the bespoke service provided by a business still owned and controlled by the fifth generation of the Gray family. Five Grays currently work for the company: two brothers and a cousin in Sussex; another two cousins in Australia. They also have offices in Pakistan and India.
The basic process of making a cricket bat has barely changed over a century and a half, says Richard Gray, the marketing director and great-great-grandson of the founder, HJ Gray. Gray-Nicolls is the only bat manufacturer to grow all of its own willow on site – on a 15-acre plot that stretches from the back of its warehouse to the village cricket pitch (not, sadly, owned by them). It uses English willow, which is “very springy and fibrous”, not weeping willow, which is too weak, or, God forbid, cashmere willow, like the Indians, which “looks nice but is too hard”. The willow grown here is shipped out to its factories in India.
The willows are felled after 20-25 years and their bark stripped with an axe. The trunks are then chopped into sections about 4ft tall, which are split down the natural lines of the wood into 10 further slices. You can expect one tree to make somewhere between 30 and 40 cricket bats.
At this point the “clefts” look like the sort of club a caveman might fancy. However, at 80 per cent moisture, they are still too heavy even for the likes of Andrew Flintoff to wield. After six weeks’ drying in a kiln, they are pressed at about 2,000lb per square in and left for six months to dry in the shed.
They are then graded from one (the best) to four (entry level). The ideal bat should have no knots and straight lines. The current fad, says Gray, is for the lines to be as close together as possible, although he doesn’t think it matters that much. Geoffrey Boycott, the ultimate faddist, used to tolerate no more than six lines on his.
The real fun, however, doesn’t start until the bats make their way inside the factory. After the handle has been applied (laminated cane from the Far East; rubber shock-absorbers from Pakistan), they come under the beady eye of master bat-maker John Gasson, who took a job at Gray-Nicolls on leaving school 50 years ago. After starting out turning bails and stumps, he made the first Scoop in 1974 and has been fine-tuning bats ever since, like the proprietor of Ollivander’s choosing wands for Harry Potter and his friends.
Out of Gasson’s 300 autographs, Alastair Cook and Mark Ramprakash are his favourites. “Ramprakash spends hours down here trying out different things,” he says. Others, such as Andrew Strauss, the England captain, are happy just to have a selection sent to them. A box of broken bats on the warehouse floor contains such tantalising stickers as: “Rob Key, use as template”. I pick it up and briefly imagine I am the Kent and sometime England right-hander.
Of course, a cynic might wonder how much difference a bit of sanding and weight redistribution makes to anyone’s game. Even Gasson admits that “bowing” – the current fad of bending the bat to give it an attractive curve – is “a bit of a gimmick”. The professionals, however, swear by it. They even use different bats for different forms of the game, many favouring a heavier variety for hitting out in 20:20. Extra weight can be added to the bottom for those who prefer driving off the front foot, or redistributed more evenly for those prone to hooking (there is nothing, sadly, to be done for those, like me, whose game focuses on hitting over cow corner).
Whether professional or amateur, cricket is big business again, especially since we won the Ashes in 2005. A good England performance can add anything up to 50 per cent on sales at the likes of John Lewis, where 70 per cent of their purchases are made for children.
With the introduction of everything from floodlights to pyjamas – not all of it welcome – the game has also become much trendier. Today, Gray-Nicolls bats even feature fashionable go-faster stickers with names such as Ignite, Nitro, Powerbow and Xiphos. WG Grace might be turning gently in his grave to face fine leg, but the man who “turned the old-one stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre” would no doubt be delighted that so many continue to sing the song of the game he loved today.
Sami = Rob Key =