Middlepeg in recent times has travelled to all corners of the globe to research and discover more about the art of cricket bat making or, as it is historically known, ‘Pod Shaving’.
We at Middlepeg can remember, as children growing up, having a genuine fascination with cricket bats. This included finding old bits of timber and then crafting them into our own backyard cricket bats decked out with flashy imitation logo's. Since those childhood days Middlepeg has gone on to become one of the most specialised and informed supplier of the highest quality cricket bats in the world.
The art of Pod Shaving can be traced back to the very origins of the game itself. Having discussed the latest cricket bat making techniques with the Master cricket bat makers of the world today it is interesting to see the traditions that have remained over the years and those that have been disbanded for the very latest in technology. Of course modern times have also seen the introduction of bat making machines and whilst there are decent bats that come from mass cricket bat making machines there can be no comparison of these performance wise to a traditionally hand crafted cricket bat made by a Master Bat Maker.
Middlepegs World of Willow introduces you to the basics of willow selection through our visit to see the worlds foremost authority on cricket bat willow as well as the art of cricket bat making by James Laver from Laver & Wood who is now widely regarded as the worlds best cricket bat maker. For any further reading and information on these fascinating subjects follow our World of Willow links.
In finding out the truth and nothing but the truth about the selection of willow used in cricket bats today there could be only one source to go to and that is J.S. Wright & Sons Ltd in Chelmsford, England.
Wright and Sons are the worlds foremost (and oldest) authority on growing and grading bat willow. Established in 1894 they are known quite simply as the worlds only cricket bat willow specialists and today supply over 90% of the entire worlds cricket bat market with bat willow and have done so for over 100 years. If you think of the entire world market, 90% is a pretty amazing figure.
Middlepeg was most fortunate to be hosted by Jeremy Ruggles who is a great grandson of the original J.S. Wright and is now the Director of the company as well as the senior willow grader. When it comes to cricket bat willow there is no greater authority than Jeremy. What we learned from Jeremy both increased our knowledge of the industry immeasurably and cleared up some common held misconceptions about cricket bat willow.
Though English Willow grows widely across England it has historically best been grown in regions in and around Essex (which is a few hours north east of London) along the banks of rivers or moist wet land areas.
A mature cricket bat willow tree is usually between 15 and 20 years old though this can vary a little. Today most willow trees have been planted and harvested specifically for bat making many years ago and as such very few ‘natural’ willow trees exist for bat making purposes.
|In this photo you can see David from
Middlepeg standing next to a 2 year old
|This photo shows a mature willow
tree being cut into 28 inch lengths.
Here you can see a trunk that Jeremy
The 28 inch length trunks are then cut into what are called clefts which is a large cricket bat shaped piece willow ready to be shaped into a bat proper. Prior to shaping however this ‘green’ cleft of willow has its ends dipped in wax and is then air dried for up to a period of one year. Some cricket bat manufacturers will have these clefts kiln dried to speed up cricket bat production but all master Pod Crafters will only allow their willow to be naturally air dried.
Once turned into raw clefts a most important stage of the cricket bat making process takes place when Jeremy Ruggles selects and grades the willow into four or so main categories. Cricket bat manufacturers and pod crafters across the world will buy their clefts under these four main categories so willow grade selection is a very important process. And despite modern day advances there is still only one way to grade willow and that is to inspect it manually by hand and eye. So your cricket bat (if made from English Willow) effectively has a 90% chance of having gone through this very process by hand at J.S. Wright & Sons.
In this photo you can see Jeremy specially grading a selection of the finest Grade1 willow for Middlepeg and Laver & Wood. For us at Middlepeg to see first hand the absolute best willow being chosen was most inspiring – it certainly is a long way going through our dads old timber piles as kids many years ago looking for anything suitable to make a bat!
Willow is graded by a number of points but most importantly the quality relates to the straightness of the grain, the width of the grain (see below) and the appearance of any blemishes in the willow which does not necessarily detract from the performance of the willow (and can in fact sometimes make it a better cricket bat).
One of the most popular talking points with cricket bats is the amount of grains that a good bat should have. The ‘grains’ of a cricket bat are those natural wood lines running up and down a bat that represent one year of growth for that particular willow tree.
To make a general statement that Jeremy Ruggles supports himself (along with a multitude of master cricket bat makers), a good cricket bat should and could have anywhere between 6 and 12 grains of willow across the face of the bat.
Years ago and even today there was the belief that a good cricket bat should have as many grains as possible but this is simply a fallacy and in fact such a bat though it may play well early, will often not last very long at all. A narrow grain therefore may feel good early but do not expect too much life out of it.
A classic example of this and quite coincidently at the time, a well known international cricketer (we were kindly asked not to identify this Test player) came in to see Jeremy for a few clefts of willow to use in an upcoming Test match. The piece that this cricketer chose had about 22 grains in it and had the red patch of ‘heartwood’ (centre of willow tree) running straight through the middle of the cleft.
You can see here Jeremy holding that exact cleft of willow chosen by this cricketer. The most important point to note hear though was the advice Jeremy gave to him that such a piece whilst being a ‘belter’ would only last 200 runs at the very most before it would split and break up. Humorously this cricketer said that would be fine and that he would be very happy to get “200” runs with it as he only intended to use it for an innings.
So for some International cricketers who quite literally use a cricket bat per innings (including a practice hit with it) they prefer the heartwood with a multitude of grains in the blade. It’s a good cricket bat but don’t expect it to last much more than a good innings because as Jeremy assured us – such a bat will split.
Conversely there are some well known cricketers who prefer their favourite cricket bats to have between say 8 to 12 grains in it as they prefer to use them over a number of test matches. These cricket bats take a little longer to ‘run or knock in’ but once they have been run in they are as good if not better than the very narrow grain bats AND they will last a lot longer.
There is a simple logic behind all of this as well. A narrower grain bat means that it has taken much longer to reach willow harvesting maturity and the wood is obviously much older. For instance, a cricket bat with 15 grains in it has taken at least 15 years to grow (a grain per year) whilst a bat with say 8 grains in it has taken eight years to grow the corresponding size. Narrower grain wood is therefore older and much more susceptible to breaking and splitting simply because the willow has aged a lot more. Being a natural substance it is quite obviously more prone to breaking and splitting.
So for the everyday club, grade, state (and even Test) cricketer a grain width of between 6 and 12 grains is ideal because once it is run in you can expect exceptional performance and a long life as well. A narrower grain bat is fine (assuming they are straight grains) but do not expect to get a long life from this kind of cricket bat.
It is probably worth noting the obvious at this point that the best piece of willow in the world means nothing unless it is then given to a master cricket bat maker to balance and craft the cleft into a sensational cricket bat.
Including the grains of a cricket bat, the single most important aspect of choosing a cricket bat for yourself is the way it feels for YOU when you shadow bat with it. Balance and feel are without a doubt the most important elements of a cricket bat. The first thing the best batsmen in the world will do when they choose a new bat of the rack will be to feel its balance and pickup. Only if that feels absolutely comfortable and right will they then inspect the willow for its quality. As we have said, the best willow in the world means nothing if that particular bat isn’t balanced properly and doesn’t feel good to you. Accordingly choose your cricket bat on balance and feel first and then on then willow quality
Whilst Middlepeg carries a range of the finest individually hand crafted cricket bats in the world (as well new bats off the rack) we simply will not offer a cricket bat for sale unless it feels right to all of us here. At Middlepeg not only do you get to feel it you get to use a sample of the same cricket bat as well to ensure your absolute peace of mind. Far too often have cricketers all around the world bought cricket bats off the rack in the shop and later been unhappy with its use out in the middle.
It was most interesting to see and hold the actual cricket bat used by Sir Donald Bradman, when he made his record innings of 304 many years ago, during Middlepegs “Night of Bradman & Blades” event held in Perth recently. During this function Middlepeg had the pleasure of hosting James Laver (widely regarded as the best cricket bat maker in the world) for an actual bat making demonstration and also Mr Richard Mulvaney who is the Director of the Bradman Museum in Bowral NSW.
The cricket bat shown here being held by Anthony from Middlepeg weighs around 2lb 4oz which makes it an extremely light bat by todays standards. Aside from the absolute honour we all felt in holding the actual cricket bat that Sir Donald used to make his 304 in England it was most interesting to see the shape and style of the Sykes bat. Incidently, the expression on Anthony's face is the result upon hearing the current value of this historical piece of willow. The photo below shows the first ‘Don Bradman Cricket Bat’ (made by Sykes Ltd, England) in which we can count 10 grains across the bat.
Compare the weight of the Dons cricket bat to that used by todays little master Sachin Tendulkar which weighs in at well over 3lbs! Although Sachins cricket bat weighs a fair bit Middlepeg carries a comprehensive range of MRF cricket bats and they are all very well balanced across all weight ranges including the plus 3lb MRF cricket bats that we stock.
Indeed Middlepeg has seen first hand master bat makers James Laver and Bradburys hand craft cricket bats which weigh in at say 2lb 13oz but yet it will pick up like a 2lb 9 or 10oz bat. We have never seen anything like the superb balance and feel of a Laver & Wood or Bradbury cricket bat and once you have a hit with our sample range of these sensational cricket bats you will know exactly what we mean and see/feel just what a sweet spot is all about.
Should you have any questions regarding the crafting of a world class cricket bat please contact us about a Laver & Wood or a Bradbury cricket bat. Not only is James Laver a master cricket bat maker but he is also a very genuine guy who totally shares your passion to craft you the best cricket bat you will ever own. The same also goes for the Bradburys who have forged a reputation amongst the worlds best cricketers as their choice of cricket bat to use.
Middlepeg sincerely thanks both Jeremy Ruggles and J.S. Wright and Sons for their hospitality and exceptional knowledge of willow and cricket bats during our visit there. For a thorough explanation of the willow growing process please do go and visit their excellent and informative website here