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Cricket bat making

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Cricket bat making

 

The making of willow cricket bats.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance South East
Area currently practised UK
Origin in the UK 17th century
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers

 

History

The game of cricket began in the Kent-Sussex borders, with hedgerow sticks for bats, the wicket gate of sheep pens for stumps, and droppings rolled with wool for balls. The sport grew popular in the south east of England, and the first mentioned use of the willow cricket bat was in 1624. The Weald became a hub for bat making – although originally bats were shaped more like hockey stick and didn’t take on their blade shape until the late-eighteenth century.

A cricket bat has a willow blade and a cane handle. Bats must conform to specific sizes and be no longer than 38 inches and no wider than 4.25 inches. The blade is made from English cricket bat willow (salix alba, var. cærulea) which grows primarily in East Anglia. Only English cricket bat willow has the properties required for a professional bat, being light but fibrous. Even bats made in India and Pakistan are made with English cricket bat willow.

 

Techniques

Cricket bat making includes the following steps: grading, selecting and seasoning the timber, machining the clefts into, pressing the bats to compress the fibres (pressing happens at several stages) fitting the handle into the blade, shaping the blade with a drawknife, shaping the shoulders and handle with a drawknife and rounded spoke shave, sanding the shaped bat, rasping the handle, binding the handle with linen thread, and polishing the completed bat.

Detailed descriptions of the cricket bat making process, with images, can be found at Woodstock Cricket Co and Salix Cricket Bat Company.

 

Local forms

n/a

Sub-crafts

n/a

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Brand versus manufacturer: While there are nearly fifty bat ‘brands’ claiming that their bats are made in the UK, there are only 12-13 genuine UK made brands. Many brands sell bats that have been made in India or Pakistan and only finished in the UK. Other people might buy-in parts and only finish the bats themselves. It is very difficult for the consumer to know which is which.
  • Market issues: There are a lot of small bat makers around the country, making 1,000-2,000 bats a year, but the bigger brands have been forced to outsource.
  • Market issues: There are not as many bat makers as there once were as most bats are now made in India and Pakistan due to the cheapness of labour abroad. While this is starting to level out, the disappearance of the skills in the UK means that the craft is unlikely to return to the UK.
  • Market issues: There isn’t the demand for bats that there once was, as the market is covered by imported bats and it is difficult for small makers in the UK to compete with that end of the market.
  • Market issues: It is very hard to make a living from bat making – to be a genuine bat maker you need to work full time and in some cases seven days a week during busy periods
  • Marketing issues: Salespeople push bats from India. The players are also paid by the big companies and so smaller companies cannot afford the sponsorship for players to use their bats
  • Supply of raw materials: Cricket bats can only be made from English cricket bat willow. There are only a few timber merchants dealing in willow and while there is enough, there isn’t an abundance as much of the willow is sent to India/Pakistan for bats to be made there.
  • Supply of raw materials: English cricket bat willow suffered from watermark disease in the 1990s. This was eradicated, but today there is a lot of storm damage to the willow. High winds cause the fibres to fracture, which causes the bats to snap – although this can usually be spotted in the making.
  • Cost of raw materials: The price of English willow is increasing every year.
  • Supply of equipment: Cost of machinery and the infrastructure needed to store it. Some manufacturers do the pressing for smaller makers as they require specialist machinery.
  • Ageing workforce: Many of the existing makers are getting older – almost all are 40+. There are hardly any apprentices/junior bat makers learning the trade.
  • Overseas competition: Labour costs in India and Pakistan, where most bats are made, is significantly cheaper than in the UK.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

Other information

 

References

How are cricket balls made?

Well I never knew that Tonbridge was famous for the making of cricket balls. This is a craft process involving a lot of hand skill. I had little idea what was inside a cricket ball, a lump of compressed cork, a tightly wound ball of string.

In the 1960’s there were 85 folk making balls in Tonbridge alone, but there was already mention of cheaper balls made in Pakistan and India, I love this 1960’s article from the Kent messenger especially the union reps title.

I am not sure how many ball manufacturers are left in Tonbridge. nor what proportion are hand stitched as against machine made but I do remember watching a guy from Alfred Reader’s stitching balls at Art in Action in 1996.

Reader’s are clearly still the major brand name in cricket balls I just called them to ask about how their balls were made and was told by a wonderfully frank and honest lady that they are all imported and only “finished” here. Bit naughty when they proudly bear the “Made in England” brand, years ago when I worked on a cutting table in Leicester lingerie firm I was told it was legal to put “Made in England” so long as some manufacturing process had taken place….and sewing in a “Made in England” label counted as a manufacturing process. The old Reader factory was sold off for housing development. The more I learn about how we treat our heritage the more I think it is bonkers. Just look at this travesty, clearly the powers that be decided what was important was to keep the factory frontage with it’s nice big sign, so they knocked it down and stuck a horrid modern house on the back. I have no doubt this makes great economic sense and was the way to make the most money out of the particular site.

So we will be following up the glorious English game with the ECB and hoping that we don’t find the sort of story of child labour that was highlighted with footballs a few years ago. If anyone can find us info on any UK made cricket balls I would be pleased to hear and we will give the makers a good plug