The game of cricket started in the Kent/Sussex borders when farmers used sticks from the hedgerows for bats and the wicket gate of sheep pens for stumps. It’s said they rolled sheep droppings with wool to make balls.” Tim Keeley, master cricket bat maker at the world-renowned John Newbery Ltd, gives a hearty laugh.
A hasty look around reveals his workshop at Ashburnham, East Sussex, is reassuringly free of dung or hedgerow debris. Rather, it simmers with wonderful woody smells from hundreds of cricket bats and fat, curly shavings strewn across bench and floor. A promise of balls caressed to the boundary hangs in the air.
“I’ve made about half a million cricket bats since I started in 1974,” Tim muses. “We’re a small niche company with a heritage going back to the early 1900s.” Customers range from juniors up to Test-level professionals. “I can’t name specific individuals,” Tim grins, “but I enjoy meeting players to discuss what they want. When I see them doing well using my bats, I feel very proud. I get goosebumps.”
While the origins of cricket are murky, the sport flourished in the Weald of south-east England. Earliest records confirm that schoolchildren in Guildford, Surrey, played “creckett” in the mid-16th century, while in 1613 someone was assaulted with a “cricket staff” in nearby Wanborough.
As the game caught on among the gentry, the legendary Hambledon Cricket Club was formed in the 1760s in Hampshire
and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) was founded in 1787 in London. The Weald became a hub for making bats, though the first were more akin to hockey sticks, morphing into today’s blade shape in the late 18th century.
“My father owned a timber mill. I was brought up on wood, it’s in my blood,” Tim says. “Bat making is an intriguing passion and I was lucky to train with the late John Newbery, the Van Gogh of the profession.
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“There used to be a magnificent seven of big companies, now there are about 50 little companies all competing. My job involves everything from planting willow trees on local farms, to cutting them down, processing them, and designing and making bats. It takes between 15 and 20 years for trees to be ready, when they measure about 1.5m (5ft) in circumference.
“Two types of willow are used in cricket bat making, Salix caerulea and Salix viridis, which have long, straight fibres. You want wood with the right strength and flexibility.”
Tim cuts the felled wood into rounds – three or four per tree – that are 76cm (30in) in length, and then splits each round, working with the grain, into eight or nine clefts – each will become a bat. One tree usually produces between 20 and 30 bats in total.
Working the willow
Next he saws the clefts into pre-cricket bat shapes, dips the ends into hot wax and stores them for three months in drying kilns beside his workshop. “The wax stops them from splitting and they lose half their moisture weight,” he explains.
As he crafts a bat, shaping and balancing by eye, Tim’s workshop alternates between the din of spindle moulders and backing machines, and the quiet rasp of the hand-wielded spoke shave, plane and draw knife. The bat blade is pressed, strengthening the long, soft willow fibres to withstand the thwack of balls. Then a cane handle, laminated with rubber, is fitted into the V of the blade with strong wood glue (see below).
Tim skims the shoulders of the bat, hand finishing it to perfection. Cricket laws prescribe dimensions for professional bats, but profiles can still differ greatly, he points out. “At the moment there are trends for thick edges and the weight distributed to the bottom of the bat. Shapes keep changing.”
He carefully sands and polishes his latest masterpiece, and binds Irish linen string on to the handle to help hold it together before adding rubber grips.
“I no longer play cricket, but I’m proud to be part of the bat-making tradition. My three sons seem keen to be involved, too, but we’ll see. Cricket and bat sales will always be buoyant – except when it rains.”
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 45 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!