The first mention of the bat used in cricket can be traced as far back as the 1620s. Interestingly, this particular reference to the bat is in relation to the death of fielder during a game, and the inference is that the batsman had hit the fielder with his bat in order to prevent him catching the ball. This incident may have also served as the instigator of what is now Law 37 - Obstructing the Field. Bats at that time were shaped very similarly to modern hockey sticks; as the ball was delivered underarm and rolled along the ground this design made sense. The cricket bat commenced its transition to the now recognisable rectangular profile in the 1770s, when the laws of cricket changed to allow bowlers to ‘loop’ the ball in the air whilst still bowling underarm. The change in law resulted in a corresponding change in batting technique, with players starting to use a more vertical swing of the bat, as opposed to the horizontal ‘sweeping’ motion that was commonplace with balls rolled along the ground. The bat was still very heavy at the base, and it wasn’t until the 1820s with the advent of round-arm bowling that bats started to take the truly modern form.
Initially, the laws of the game made no restriction on what size or shape the bat needed to be. This limitation was not needed, until a clever thinking player, one ‘Shock’ White representing Ryegate, marched out to bat against Hambledon in 1771 with a bat the width of the stumps. This tactic was considered quite unsportsmanlike, and Hambledon’s recommendation that the bat be officially limited to a maximum of four and a quarter inches in width was quickly accepted around all of England. A number of steel gauges were made, so that bats could be quickly checked for conformity to this new law. This change in law consolidated the changes in batting technique from predominantly horizontal swing path to a mixture of vertical and horizontal. The different shots we see now were starting to take shape, however, the general batting technique was based around power and strength.
The search to find the ideal timber for making cricket bats has seen many different types of wood experimented with. Traditionally, cricket bats have been made from English willow, known as Salix Alba Caerulea. It has been used since the early 1800s in almost all cricket bats. The reason for using willow related to its resilience to the impact of a hard ball, its toughness and also its relative lightness. Other timbers have been found to be either too dense, which makes them too heavy to be used, or not dense enough, which results in them breaking on contact. These early bats made from English willow could weight up to a massive five pounds in weight, and were constructed from the heartwood of the tree. This part of the timber is very dense, and this is why the cricket bats of this era appear far darker in colour than more modern ones. In 1890, the English bat manufacturer C.C. Bussey started using the sapwood of the tree instead, and found that it was far lighter and was also more cosmetically appealing to buyers. Very soon afterwards, all bats started being constructed from ‘white’ willow.
The early ‘white’ willow bats were a lot lighter than previous versions, weighing a few pounds at most. This change coincided with the “Golden Age” of batting, with a number of players such as Kumar Ranjitsinhji and Victor Trumper using these lighter blades to great effect. Bats of this era were characterised by a very slim and relatively straight profile, with very thin edges. The distribution of the weight was often quite high in the blade, as this helped with the desire for a ‘feather’ feel. Interestingly, the actual length of the entire bat was also smaller than today, with the handle being quite short. The bats were usually in the range of two pounds to two pounds and four ounces. The batting technique was again altering, with many players relying on touch rather than power. Ranji’s development of the leg glance and glides were, at least partially, made possible by the fact that the bat was light enough to be manoeuvred easily. Late cuts and other shots that relied on timing rather than brute strength were quickly adopted as the bats of the day allowed greater improvisation.
By the late 1920s, a few players were again trialling the use of heavier bats. Whilst leading batsmen like Jack Hobbs, Don Bradman and Wally Hammond used a bat of around 2 pounds 2 ounces, Bill Ponsford was famous for his “Big Bertha” bat. Ponsford used bats around 2 pounds 9 ounces which were considered very heavy for the time. The bats also lasted a long time. The willow was very heavily pressed during the making, which made it more durable, but also less responsive. However, the majority of players were still using light bats. Batting techniques were still predominantly around touch and feel. It was normal in this period for at least 110 overs to be bowled on every day, so the number of runs per over didn’t need to be high. A scoring rate of two and a half runs per over would still see nearly 300 runs scored in the day. The introduction of both timeless and five day test matches saw less emphasis on quick scoring, and more on survival. Many batsmen relied on stroking or deflecting the ball rather than striking it fiercely.
The actual design of cricket bats had remained fairly standard since the 1890s. By the 1960s, some players were choosing to return to very heavy bats, with Graeme Pollock and Clive Lloyd both using blades that exceeded three pounds in weight. This density assisted greatly with the power they could hit the ball with. The heavier options were not for all players though, as many struggled to play shots such as cuts and hooks as the sheer weight of the bat limited their ability to move it quickly enough. Gary Sobers continued using a very light bat until the end of his career. However, during the 1970s John Newberry and Gray Nicolls started experimenting with various changes in the weighting of the bat. Karsten Solheim, an engineer with General Electric in the USA had started making golf putters with heel-toe (or perimeter) weighting in the late 1950s. These putters had proved extremely popular with both professionals and amateurs alike due to their forgiveness. Gray Nicolls used similar concepts in their ‘Super Scoop’ bat, which featured a large hollow on the back of the bat, and more wood around the edges. This redistribution of weight from the middle to the edge allowed the manufacturers to increase the ‘sweet spot’ on the bat, thus making a bat that was more forgiving to slight mishits.
In recent years, the bat makers have continued to refine their art. By careful design of scoops, hollows, plugs, cores and so on, the sweet spots have been maximised and even mishits race to, and over, the boundary. The weight of Ponsford’s bats, once considered exceptional, are now considered on the light side of average. By pressing the timber less, bats can be made much heavier whilst still retaining a light feel and pickup. This has also resulted in a great reduction in durability. Bradman said that he changed his bat around every 1000 runs or so, and that this was considered fairly normal for batsmen of his era (admittedly for Bradman, this was after every three of four innings). In contrast, Herschelle Gibbs once commented to the Guardian newspaper that he went through 47 bats in one season. Players can now have the combination of power and manoeuvrability in the one bat, and with sponsorship, they don’t have to worry about how long the bats last for.
One of the interesting side-effects of this revolution in bats may be the increase in net run-rate that is evident around the world in Test cricket. The great cricket statistician, Charles Davis, conducted some fascinating research into the percent of team scores that is the result of boundaries. During the 19th Century, just less than half a team’s runs were scored in boundaries. This figure remained remarkably consistent throughout the 20th Century, before starting to rise in 1990. It has now nearly reached 60%, a quite considerable increase in less than two decades, after being stationary for over a century.
Some of this increased run-rate can naturally be ascribed to fast outfields, shorter boundaries, and possibly weaker opposition. However, it seems clear that the technological change in bats has also been a significant factor. Batsmen are not afraid to risk hitting sixes, as even mishits can still clear the boundary. Comparisons of bats from even twenty years ago show significant changes. The edges of bats are now measured in centimetres, not millimetres. The meat of the bat is now much lower in the blade, but also thicker. Bats now quite often have a pronounced ‘bow’ shape, in contrast to many of the straight blades of the past. The weights of bats have increased, and yet the feel and pickup of them has not been affected adversely. A recent quote by a friend summed up the difference ‘looks like a railway sleeper, picks up like a wand’. Shots that seemed to be forgotten during the 1970s such as the late cut have made a comeback. Batsmen are able to combine both touch and power within a wide range of shots, and run-rates have soared.Golf, tennis and other sports have seen a major revolution in recent years due to changes in materials such as carbon fibre, graphite and titanium. The clubheads of golf drivers have tripled in size, but the overall weight hasn’t increased. Cricket has not seen this structural shift (apart from Kookaburra’s graphite reinforced bat) due to the requirement for the bat to be made of wood, however, other technological improvements have definitely improved the equipment batsman have on hand. These changes will naturally continue in to the future, as the cricket bat continues to evolve and manufacturers seek the next big breakthrough. And batting techniques will continue to evolve with them.