Bat & Ball

The cricket bat and cricket ball: The history and the background

To search for the origins of these two indispensable implements, it is necessary to make a cursory foray back towards the birth of the game itself. Not that it is possible to arrive at a specific point, since the exact origins will surely be shrouded in mystery forever. For all the talk of Hambledon and Broadhalfpenny Down as where it all started, there is evidence of the game’s existence before the end of the 16th century.

It is quite conceivable that it began as a contest between stick and a piece of wood, both then widely available in the downlands of southeast England. Nor is there have been than the wicket gate of a sheep pen?

Whatever the exact origins, how did the bat and ball evolve into what we have now? In both cases the process was a gradual one. The chunk of wood became one of more spherical shape, and later still a piece of cork, or some other form of stuffing, with a leather covering stitched around it. That was the prototype for today’s ball, which is made of hand-stitched leather it hard to imagine a contest between shepherds in those early days, with the bat a shepherd’s crook. and ball of wound cloth -presumably wool. To carry this imaginary scenario a fraction further, what better wicket could dyed red or white, with an interior of cork wound with twine. Regulations concerning size and weight followed, which have changed marginally over the years.

Back in 1744, the only thing that mattered about the ball was its weight, which could be no less than five ounces and no more than six. Thirty years later this was narrowed down to between five and a half ounces (155.9 grams) and five and three quarter ounces (163g). A ruling on the ball’s circumference followed in 1938, specified as between nine and a quarter inch. In 1927 this was reduced to the present-day figure, no less than eight and thirteen-sixteenths of an inch (22.4 centimetres), and no greater than nine inches (22.9 cm). The balls used in women’s cricket are slightly smaller and lighter, and for Under-13 cricket still more so (four and three-quarter ounces).

Within these parameters there are regional variations. Balls can behave differently depending on their make, and on the prevailing conditions. The Kookaburra ball, for example, rapidly ceases to assist the bowler after around 20 overs of a match. The captain can take a new ball after a minimum of 75 overs; in most current international cricket it is after 80. Balls may go out of shape from time to time, although the views of the bowler and umpire on this can contrast widely. The bowler may simply be hoping to get a ball replaced because it isn’t “doing” as much as he thinks it should. It is often a delicate judgement for the umpire, who is the final arbiter in such matters.

So much for the ball -how did the bat develop from a mere stick off a tree, or shepherd’s crook, into the comparatively sophisticated wand that 1s wielded at present? It was honed into a club, which itself evolved into something akin to a hockey stick, designed to deal with the under-arm deliveries of earlier days, propelled all along the ground in a literal derivation of the original “bowling”. The first signs of a shoulder emerged with the “batten bat”, and the now customary splice followed.

Today, the bat’s blade is made of willow, while the handle comprises strips of cane layered with rubber, the whole bound with twine and encased in one or more rubber grips. The splice is the extension of the cane from the shoulder of the willow into the meat of it. The back of the bat contrasts with the front; typically it is rounded, although in modern bats a scoop might be taken out of the middle, or various other incursions made at the back to distribute the weight for better balance and a larger ‘middle’.

For obvious reasons, the bat’s dimensions are limited. It can be no more than four and a quarter inch (10.8 cm) in width, and 38 inches (96.5 cm) in height. Following Dennis Lillee’s notorious experiment with an aluminium bat at Perth in 1980, the MCC inserted a clause into the Laws of Cricket stipulating that the blade must be made of wood. However there is no restriction on weight, nor has there ever been. While four-pound bats were once commonplace, the weight nowadays tends to range from two and a half to three pounds. Protective covering, as a means of strengthening or repair, is also permitted, provided it ‘shall not be likely to cause unacceptable damage to the ball’. Another law of critical relevance to the bat concerns the hand and glove of the batsman, both of which are deemed to be part of the bat itself. Many a marginal dismissal has resulted, with batsmen escaping because a brush on the glove was invisible and inaudible to the umpire or being wrongly given out caught off the armguard or some other piece of protective kit. In 2001 the talented Pakistan batsman Yousuf Youhana was most unfortunate to be given out caught at slip off the peak of his helmet, rather than his bat or glove. It was just one more dismissal of somewhat freakish quality, in which the bat was adjudged to have been involved but in fact was not.

Naturally the bat manufacturers want their own names to be clearly visible, particularly in the age of zoom lenses and close-up photography. Established names such as Slazenger, Gunn and Moore, Duncan Fearnley and Gray Nicolls appear in their distinctive logos, as does the more recently established Woodworm brand, endorsed by the magnificent England allrounder Andrew Flintoff. In India, tobacco companies have been known to circumvent advertising regulations by using the logo of a brand of cigarettes on bats used by leading players while, at the same time, producing a very limited number of similar bats for general sale.

For established international players, the benefits of endorsement are huge, with bats as with other visible equipment, although one of the more memorable cricket pictures of recent years is of the then Australian captain Steve Waugh, hobbling with a calf injury against England at The Oval in 200 I, diving to achieve the run which completed his century. Raised aloft, like a periscope from the sea, was his bat in acknowledgement of the applause, and not a sponsor or a maker’s name in sight. What a throwback to the good old days!