Following is from his book;
I’ve always felt Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer have a serious problem – they have massive love affairs with their cricket bats. They’d talk about them as if they were family members. I’d think, Seriously, what are you blokes on about? It’s just a bat, you know. Leave it alone!
Bats are a great talking point in the Australian dressing-room – probably one of the top conversation topics, along with where to go for dinner, who’s getting the coffee (and how some people are selfish for just getting their own), football, Warnie, what’s happening in the game and any other gossip doing the rounds. It took me about five years to work out that Ricky was a scheming, mischievous bat sabotager. In his eyes, any bat that wasn’t a Kookaburra (his brand) might as well have been a picket torn from a fence. When newcomers came into the team, Punter would inspect their gear, take block with their bat, try on their gloves (which are basically the same no matter who makes them) and toss them down with a dismissive shake of the head and that cheeky half-grin that signals a gee-up is nigh. The new boys would shrink. You’d see them thinking, Is my gear really that bad? I’d have to reassure them later that it was all a act.
Or a partial act, anyway. For some reason, Ponting and the other ‘Kookaburra boys’, Langer and Hussey, are all bat scientists obsessed with their blades. It wasn’t uncommon in the Australian room to see a batsman playfully testing another person’s blade, and their final opinion often rested on their own innings. If they’d gone well, it’d be, ‘Glad I’m not batting with this.’ If they had gone badly, it was, ‘Maybe I should be trying something like this.’
Our fielding coach, Mike Young, tells a story about Punter going to every locker in the dressing-room (finishing with Warnie’s in the corner) after failing in a Boxing Day Test, taking out each player’s bat and bouncing a ball on it five or six times before putting it back in the locker. Youngy reckons Punter was operating almost on remote control and only half-knew what he was doing. As Punter left the room and went upstairs to join the other players, Youngy said to the only other player there, Glenn McGrath, ‘How ’bout that?’ to which Pigeon replied, ‘He does it all the time.’
The only time Punter’s gear obsession left its mark on me was in 2003, when he picked up one of my bats, flexed it and gave it that dismissive shake of the head as if to say, ‘Glad I’m not batting with that.’ But on this occasion he meant it. I have never been a bat aficionado, but it was always in my best interests to stay at the forefront of bat technology. And the fact was my bats had been left behind. My association with Gray-Nicolls stretched back to the days when I paid to use their bats and not the other way around. At least, Mum paid. The first backyard bats Gaz and I used were Gray-Nicolls, and we still have one of them mounted on the wall in our old bedroom on the farm. But other companies had developed new, bigger bats with flat faces and far more power than my timid weapons.
This was when I was at the top of my game and felt that either Gray-Nic had to catch up with the times or I would have to go elsewhere. It was hard for both of us, because I never wanted to leave Gray-Nic (and never did, until the end of my Australian career). I had a meeting with the Gray-Nic powerbrokers and said, ‘You’ve been the greatest bat company ever, but you’re a conservative company, and unless you change you’re going to lose me and your foothold in the market. You’ll be blown away by the competition.’
To their credit, the company spent a lot of money upgrading its bats by acquiring machines which cut the bats with flat rather than curved faces. The edges of the bats became thicker. Bats had more wood and consequently more power, but were still easy to pick up. When I now pick up bats I used early in my career they seem so inferior. I have the bat I used in my first Test framed at home, and when I look up at it I wonder how I ever got any power from it. And then I wonder about batsmen playing 70 years ago – no wonder Bradman didn’t hit many sixes. But bats can feel different from one week to the next. A few weeks before I scored 380 against Zimbabwe in Perth in 2003, I picked up the bat I would use in that innings and hated it. A few weeks and few extra waves at Straddie later, it was love at second sight. It just felt perfect again.
In the final few years of his career, Alfie made at least three Test centuries using Punter’s bats and several more batting in his shoes. He’d jump around in Ricky’s shoes and say things like, ‘I feel like Muhammad Ali.’ Many years earlier he used to wear Steve Waugh’s shoes, hoping some of the magic would rub off. Every time Alfie and Ricky catch up now, you can bet that within the first few minutes of the conversation one of them will ask, ‘Got any decent bats lately?’ They’re like two old stamp collectors. They were always full of theories. Alfie went through a stage where he had to have an oval-shaped bat handle, which involved bulking up opposite sides of the handle. Then he went through another stage where he’d have the half grip under the full grip, which provided a thicker bottom part of the handle and a thinner top. Then he followed a bizarre trend set by Jacques Kallis who, for some mysterious reason, used to have a little (No Swearing Please) on the end of his bat handle. Don’t ask me what it was there for. If something worked, Alfie always reckoned it was worth a try.
It all got a bit much a few years ago, when Ricky shaved about three centimetres off his handle and scored some nice runs, prompting Alfie to do the same. I once secretly borrowed one of Punter’s bats and sent it with one of my bats to the Riviera timber company, where they cut the end off my bat handle and used special glue to stick it on the end of Punter’s. I saw him testing it out at the Gabba, inspecting it from top to bottom as he does. He even flexed its handle because his handles have a special flex and, being the bat nuffy he is, he then peeled the grip at both ends of the handle where, to his horror, he uncovered my handiwork.
Punter loves his bats, and when he found what he considered to be the perfect bat he sent it to an Indian factory to be used as a prototype for his future bats. Michael Hussey is so obsessed about getting the weight of his bats right he travels with a set of scales. Huss’s scales became a source of amusement on tour. Some players like Punter would use them to weigh their bats one day, then the next day would mock Huss, saying, ‘Have a look at Mr Cricket with his scales.’ As for me, my hands are my scales. I just pick up a bat, shake it and take block. It either feels good or it doesn’t.
Over the years we’ve seen the glorification of some players’ bats, invariably heavy ones. The days of the ultra-light bats used by the likes of Don Bradman are gone forever. In 1998, the Australian team that was crucified in India by Sachin Tendulkar became so infatuated with the little master that at least eight of them brought back copies of his famous Vampire bat, and Brisbane firm Gabba Sporting Products even produced a special version of it. Tendulkar’s extremely heavy bats were way too heavy for me. In fact, they may have even been too heavy for Tendulkar too. For a time during his career he suffered from an acute case of tennis elbow, and it was widely thought his heavy bats were partially to blame. Michael Clarke went through a stage where he thought bigger was better, but he just wasn’t powerful enough to cope with the heavier blades. He was getting late on the ball – and it’s very difficult to change your natural technique overnight. Punter, playing the bat scientist rather than the pot-stirrer, went up to Michael one day, lifted his bat, and said straight out, ‘That’s too heavy. You won’t be able to lift it.’ He was right.
A memorable experience with bat branding came in the IPL, when I became the brand ambassador for the revolutionary Mongoose bat. The Mongoose handle is 43 per cent longer than normal bats and the blade 33 per cent shorter, so it looks like something between a cricket bat and a baseball bat. I’ve never seen a brand catch fire like that. Indians are not known for embracing left-field experiments, and our Chennai captain, MS Dhoni, was mortified when he first set eyes on the Mongoose – it was so different from anything he’d seen before. ‘Are you going to use that?’ he asked me, and when I told him I didn’t know, he said, ‘I’ll give you any bat in my bag not to use it.’
The Mongoose caused enormous interest among my teammates – everyone picked it up and played with it and were all eyes when I trained with it in the nets. When I first pulled it out for a game in the IPL I could sense the knives sharpening. I know how Dean Jones must have felt when he broke more than a century of tradition and wore sunglasses on the cricket field. I must admit I felt a bit anxious, because if I failed, the brand could go down with me. A lot was riding on it. But I liked the project from all angles. I’ve always thought Twenty20 cricket was about entertainment, and that there was room for experimentation in many areas of cricket gear, bats included.
When I was approached by the Mongoose firm while commentating in England in the 2009 Ashes series, I was open to the idea of using a differently shaped bat. My interest in the potential of an unconventionally shaped bat started at the 2007 World Cup, when Mike Young asked me to hit some balls with a baseball bat. We had stayed back after training one day and spent two hours hitting balls. I was very sceptical about the power of a round bat when hitting a round ball, but I changed my thinking when I hit a ball 20 metres further than I could have done with a cricket bat. The longer handle and bat speed just seemed to give me more power, as did the fact that the prime weight of the bat – the head – was where the ball was being hit. Basically, the Mongoose design just cuts out the areas of the blade you very rarely use. My first hit with a Mongoose was in the Middlesex nets, and the ball went miles.
When the product was launched in India there was a large degree of scepticism about it – but isn’t that always the way with new ideas? I was on 19 when I called for the Mongoose for the first time in an IPL game against the Delhi Daredevils, and I went on to make 93, smacking a swag of fours and sixes along the way. One Indian journalist likened it to the moment in the movie Scarface when Al Pacino’s character bursts through the door with a semi-automatic gun and yells, ‘Say hello to my little friend!’ From that point on, whenever I walked out to bat signs would flash up on the scoreboard reading, It’s Goose time. I think the next generation of players will use the Mongoose without any reservations – the ice has been broken for them and they won’t have to worry about challenging convention.
Andrew Symonds’ simple theory on bats is that there are three types: those you use in a game, those you use in the nets – and those you probably wouldn’t use yourself, so you give them to fast bowlers and tell them how good they are! Fast bowlers are surely the oysters of the cricket world when it comes to bat selection. They pick up any old thing that’s floating by and try to turn it into a pearl."