Selecting a bat is a tricky proposition these days.
Everyone is an ‘expert’ in what you should buy and everyone from the groundsman to the umpires through your team-mates to your mum will have a view on what makes up a good bat.
But here’s the thing; a good bat means something different to so many people, so to apply rules and pre-empt performance by pre-judging pieces of wood is fool-hardy.
What I’m going to attempt to do in this piece is just to help you with the key points of the approach that can help you:
“I want it pressed soft- just like a pro!”
Many who decry the size of the modern bats often suggest that bats are left unpressed to maintain the huge swells of the modern weapon.
Hitting a cricket ball is about the transference of energy; sound (the thwack of the ball) heat (if there was none, Hotspot© would not work) and kinetic energy are all transferred from the arms of the player to the ball. Factor in too, that the ball itself has embedded kinetic energy and you’ll see there’s enough forces going on in one shot to encourage Sir Isaac Newton to convene a global conference on the subject.
But the nub is this; a lightly or unpressed bat will dent. That dent is, by definition, plastic failure. It absorbs energy and that energy stays, in the form of heat and energy, within the blade. If a bat dents it is impossible to argue that it is effectively transferring energy. It’s absorbing it, and that is a fact.
The simple fact is wood is drier from the inside out now; pressing lightly will detract from performance not improve it.
“Make the handle really whippy, so it pings…”
Again, this is the sort of comment that will make the enlightened bat maker groan and shrug with despair. It is as if our old friend Newton’s Third Law does not apply on the cricket field.
A ball hits the bat anywhere between 40 to 100 MPH. A bat is swung at speeds (measured at the swell) at around 80-100 MPH. The exit speed of a ball can be anywhere between 80-120mph, a frightening velocity.
Think about the poor flexible handle here. Do you really believe that it can reform in the nano-second before the ball leaves the bat face? It does not. In point of fact, a whippy handle (and some people remove the binding to make it even more flexible) will deform before you hit the ball in the downswing itself, and then, upon impact, the force of the ball will cause more deformation to the handle that will not reform elastically until well after the ball has left the bat.
Yes, the whippy handle makes the shot feel sweeter, but the laws of physics dictate that it’s a misperception rather than a reality and it’s proven the ball will travel less far off the bat.
More breakages are caused by ill-fitting handles than any other reason. Once a shoulder splits, there’s little can be done to be repaired.
Look for deep spines and a thicker shoulder. Stiffness, not whip produces the best results.
Returning to the notion that everyone is an expert on bats, makers are often perplexed with the pre-conceptions and blind demands of some of the modern cricketers.
“It needs to have 14 grains and half heartwood with a low middle,’ is a phrase that you may often hear bandied around. But let’s just examine that.
We all know willow is a natural product, so if that holds why would we preconceive our demands when the raw material is so inherently variable and each cleft is unique?
How many times do you see fashion addicts struggle to wear the latest clothes, squeeze themselves into a pair of jeans two sizes too small and feel totally uncomfortable for the rest of the day, just in the name of fashion?
It’s the same with bats. By remotely pre-determining the look of the bat you think you want, you are removing the most important characteristic of all- how it FEELS in your hands.
The single most important characteristic of a bat is that you, the player, has an unconscious and intuitive connection and confidence in your bat, and this is far more about how it feels than how much it weighs or what it looks like.
Indeed, in producing this piece, one famous bat maker confided that they’d recalibrate the company scales specifically for one former England player, who demanded a precise weight when he visited the maker. Every bat he took was actually 2 ounces heavier than he ever found out, and yet he scored thousands of runs without ever knowing!
The nonsense talked about grains is proven by the disparity between the pro’s in terms of what they want. Trescothick, who’d not mind me saying he was a bat anorak of the highest order, would want pure white wood, with a wider grain than say Michael Vaughan, who preferred part red heartwood and a tighter grain. Each, I’m sure, were driven by superstition rather than fact.
As with grain and appearance, very few cricketers actually understand how shape affects performance.
Put simply, the weight of shot behind the ball is called Effective Mass and is the mass of wood from a point from the bat’s COG (centre of gravity) to the point where you hit that ball. Any weight outside of that area is ineffective.
It is also true that the more wood you have at the bottom of the bat, the more it affects pick up. An ounce in the toe is far heavier in feel than an ounce directly near the centre of gravity, purely down to the lever effect.
An interesting trend is the modern love of very square toes, which, although it has the optical illusion of making the bat look wider, adds a great deal of weight to the bat. 1/4 of an ounce in the toe will make it feel an ounce different in pick up.
This played on my mind for quite a time, so I actually made a bat, weighed it with a square toe, then rounded the toe off and I found that the total weight I removed was around 7/8ths of an ounce, which is substantial.
I also am convinced that a square toe breaks much easier than a rounded toe. You only have to think of a piece of paper becoming dog-eared at the corners to understand this concept.
People don’t understand that the art of making the big bat is all about distributing the weight and keeping the middle reasonably high. I am confident that a well distributed swell on a bat will pick up some two or three ounces lighter than a poorly distributed shape, which again gives the feel and connectivity that good batsmen crave.
It’s obvious this is the connection point for all batsmen. I advocate working with you to get the correct section shape. An oval handle help prevent the bat twisting if the shot is hit off centre, but on the other hand, a rounded handle suits cross bat stroke players better as it’s easier to roll wrists when hooking and cutting.
Spend hours getting the handle right- I can assure you it’s the one thing the pro’s crave- a handle that feels RIGHT. I used to sit and watch great international and county batters sat changing their handle shape with strips of sticky plaster and tape to get it exactly how they want it at that time and point of their game.
So the messages are clear; whilst a bat choice is a very personal thing there’s a lot of good practice you can adopt when making your choice:
- Don’t limit yourself to appearance. First make sure it feels right and when you’ve found 3 or 4 that do, then test the ping, but don’t try and make a bat that feels wrong but pings, feel right.
- Understand that low middles don’t really change the way the bat hits the ball, even on slow low wickets. Balance is the key thing and if the bat is correctly balanced, the extra speed in your swing will more than compensate for the lowness of the pitch.
- Your bat needs to make you feel confident. You need to go and feel it.
- Grain: nothing in bat making is more misunderstood. The ping of the ball tells all and the appearance tells very little. However, it’s true that even straight grains, whether there be 6 grains or 26, tend to offer good all round performance, but the ping of the ball tells more than the look of the wood.
- Spend time to make sure the handle feels right. Jacques Kallis and Marcus Trescothick carried Elastoplast rolls in their bags just to reshape their handles, Trescothick loving an oval feel at the bottom part, whereas Kallis would build up the end of the handle to an exaggerated sphere, so he knew where the top of the handle was.