Why size doesn't matter when it comes to modern cricket bats
In our exclusive interview, Gray-Nicolls' Chris King - personal bat-maker for England's Alex Hales and Alastair Cook - busts the big bat myth.
Cricket balls are being hit harder and travelling further than ever before.
According to Cricinfo, just 5.3 per cent of deliveries in one-day international cricket were hit for boundaries in 1980.
At the most recent World Cup in 2015, that number had almost doubled to 10.5 per cent.
Before 2006, no team had ever managed to post an ODI total in excess of 400 runs. Since then, the feat has been achieved 18 times.
England – who are among the favourites to win the next World Cup in the latest cricket betting – did so with ease when hitting a world-record total of 444 against Pakistan in 2016.
To the untrained eye, it is the huge bats being wielded by modern batsmen that are largely responsible for such a run hike.
“I get worried when bats are really big and really light,” said Ricky Ponting in 2016. He was backed up by Mike Brearley, England’s 1981 Ashes-winning captain, who declared:
“The time has come to restrict the size of bat edges. The game is tilted too far in the batsman’s favour.”
Both men sit on the MCC World Cricket Committee that recently approved new rules to limit the size of bats, which will come into effect from 1 October this year.
Whether the move will stop mis-hits and edges flying for boundaries, though, is unclear.
Because cut a little deeper, and the science behind the theory isn’t quite so convincing.
The reality is that a modern-day cricket bat currently weighs no more than it has done at any time in history.
You don’t need to be an expert, then, to understand that the power must be coming from elsewhere.
Even so, we spoke to one to help debunk the myth.
Chris King is the personal bat-maker for both Alastair Cook – England’s all-time highest Test run scorer – and Alex Hales – who holds the record for England’s highest-ever individual ODI score – among many others.
So if there is one man who understands that there is far more to modern-day run-scoring than merely the size of the willow, it’s him.
“Everybody gets obsessed with the shape of the cricket bat, but the actual power comes from how well the piece of wood is pressed,” says King, who works for Gray-Nicolls, a manufacturer that have been honing their craft since the 19th century and also provide the bats for names including Australia’s David Warner, New Zealand’s Kane Williamson and South Africa’s JP Duminy.
"But that is an area of bat-making that most people don't understand. They assume it's just the size. If it was that easy, it would be a lot easier to make a good cricket bat.
"I often joke with people on social media that it’s like saying a Ferrari is fast because it's red. It completely undermines what the engine is.”
Pressing technique – whereby the fibres of the wood are compressed together to firm up the blade in preparation for hitting a hard ball – has not changed much down the years, though bats are pressed slightly less nowadays.
Batsmen also now use tighter-grain wood, sourced from trees that have grown slowly in conducive conditions for up to 20 years. This means modern bat surfaces are harder and therefore closer to peak performance, immediately explosive but less durable.
But neither change in approach has had an impact on the weight or size of the bat.
One recent experiment conducted at the start of last year by former England captain Nasser Hussain and current England wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow underlined the other, more influential, factors behind modern scoring power.
Using the same bat, both men attempted to hit six balls into the stands. Bairstow did so five times, whereas Hussain failed to clear the boundary rope once.
“I made both the bats they were using,” King says. “Nasser was using Bairstow’s second bat from the same pair, so I know they were the same.
“Nasser asked, ‘Why can’t I do it?’, and Jonny replied, ‘Because you’re hitting it wrong, your position is wrong, and you need to get in the gym!’
“There is a lot of belief that it must be the big bats, whereas actually it is a lot more to do with the professionalism of the sport. They play different shots now.”
The brutish size of modern-day bats is, undeniably, striking. That, as King explains, is down to the example set by influential figures.
“It tends to be driven by the top end of the game,” he says.
“All it takes is somebody like David Warner to be constantly getting it over the boundary while using a very obviously large cricket bat and everybody sees it as a shortcut to being successful.
“That is also supported by commentators, because they are ex-cricketers from the ‘70s and ‘80s, who see these guys hitting boundaries all the time, hitting massive sixes, and the first thing you see is the fact that their bat is different to what you used to have.”
But when did it start?
“I think you could trace it back to some point in the ‘90s,” King says.
“India and Pakistan started producing large quantities of very high-quality cricket bats at a very low price, so the market suddenly got filled with these high-quality bats that were more and more dramatic.
“They fit with that Bollywood approach to cricket – the IPL and that sort of feel.
“Nobody has ever gone back.”
Considering the complex thinking that goes into manufacturing, one might assume that all players have near-obsessive processes of bat selection and maintenance.
But King says that, in his experience, batsmen’s personalities vary.
He lists Shiv Chanderpaul – his first international client and scorer of 30 Test centuries for the West Indies – and Marcus Trescothick – who opened England’s batting for over six years – as fussy operators, while Cook and Hales are at the other end of the scale.
“Hales has got a particular shape, size and weight, but once he has it delivered, he basically just takes them out and plays with them.”
“Chanderpaul came in because the West Indies were touring England. He’s very discerning about his willow. So when he found a nice one in the workshop, he asked for it to be made into a cricket bat.
“He got about 80 in the first innings and 90 in the second, and from then on I made every bat that he used until recently.
“He has a whole process of preparing the bat. He knocks it in, he plays with it, he practises with it. He’ll add a bit of tape, I think he even seals the top of the shoulders with a kind of glue to stop moisture getting in.
“In general, though, you find that if you make a bat for somebody and they do well, you’ll be making that bat again because they think the way it looks means it will have the same performance.
“If only it was that easy.”
According to King, the imminent restrictions brought in to swing the balance of modern cricket will affect nothing.
“Bat-makers all find it quite funny because literally they are going to have no change whatsoever.
“To be honest, the dimensions that they have given us aren’t that terrifying anyway,” he says. “It’s not like they’re going back 20 years.”
Rule changes aside, he doubts how much further bats can really evolve anyway.
Not that that will stop him, and others in his profession, from eking out every advantage possible.
“I often say that as manufacturers we’re a bit like Formula 1 now, in that we take the materials and push them to their absolute limit.
“It’s like anything nowadays. Most people’s family car is probably more powerful and more finely-tuned than a sports car was 15 years ago. It’s the way everything progresses.
“Can we go any further with it? I don’t think we can because we’re restricted to certain materials and by the laws of cricket.”
He pauses and laughs.
“I guess it’s the bowler’s turn next.”
What cricket bat does David Warner use?
David Warner uses the Gray-Nicolls Kaboom! which, though weighing just 2lbs 9¾ oz, boasts edges of over 50mm and a spine of 85mm at its thickest point.