History of Cricket Bats
The bats, or the bowler destruction weapon, as they call it in the T20 era have a long history starting as far back as the 17th century. The bats weren’t always as rectangular, or as big, or had this much depth. The change happened gradually owing to law changes and also to fulfill the demands of modern day cricket.
In the 17th century, the cricket bats started off looking like modern day hockey sticks since the ball was being bowled underarm and had to be rolled along the ground without giving it any air. The shape of the bat continued to be the same until late in the 18th century. That’s when the modern rectangular shape of the bat started to appear owing to change in the bowling rule that allowed the bowlers to loop the ball in the air while still bowling underarm.
The shape of the bat and loop in the ball also triggered big changes in the batting technique. The batsmen started to play vertical bat shots as opposed to only the horizontal bat — sweep — shots earlier. However, in the absence of the modern day overarm bowling, and thus the lack of enough bounce, the ball would still only hit the lower part of the bat and thus the bats used to be heavier at the bottom. Overarm bowling started becoming a thing in the early 19th Century and the bats slowly started to attain the shape and weight distribution of the modern day willows.
A lot of cricket laws came into existence when someone defied common sense and sportsman spirit or were just being smart, to take undue advantage of the absence of the laws. There was no law regarding the size of the bat until late in the 18th century when a player came out with a bat as wide as the stumps. This prompted the change in the laws to restrict the size of the bat which effectively resulted in the modern-day shots starting to take shape.
The bats in the early 19th century were dark and heavy — up to as heavy as five pounds. These bats were made from the heartwood of the English willow tree which is dense and dark. The heavier bats did not allow the batsmen to play to outrageous shots batsmen pull off with lighter willows.
By the end of the 19th century, the manufactures started to use sapwood of English Willow tree for lighter and white bats. The weight distribution started to even out. This immediately became a trend as the lighter bats helped batsmen to be innovative in the shot making. The bats were still different in shape in one aspect though, the handle. Those days the handle of the bat used smaller. The ‘long handle’ batsmen use these days to clear the ropes came into the existence much later.
The lighter weight of the bats initiated a further change in batting technique. The power-hitting was replaced by deft touches. Ranjitsinhji invented and mastered the leg glance during this period. The flicks and nudges started becoming popular shots as they were less risky. Basically, timing started becoming more important than power.
When cricket spread to other countries the attempts were made to make the bats locally. The English willow trees planted in these countries weren’t producing the wood as good as the one locally grown in England. The experiments failed in Australia and New Zealand to weather and wind conditions. The bats were simply not dense and cracked very quickly. The teams were back to using the imported bats made from English willow.
In the first half of the 20th century, the weight of the bat ranged from around 2.2 to 3 pounds. Batsmen preferred to use lighter bats and the soft hand play was dominant. The design and the material used for making the bats remained fairly similar for a very long up until the 1960s when the next big change took place with the introduction of Kashmir Willow. India and Pakistan started making the bats locally using Kashmir Willow. These bats were darker and harder and said to be less durable but the teams in the subcontinent used to frequently to good effect.
Slowly with the intent changing to quick scoring and the advent of ODI cricket, the batters started using the heavier bats. Manufacturers started experimenting with the weight distribution of the bat in order to increase the sweet spot. The power game was back. The mishits started reaching the boundary.
Innovation that changed everything
Then the latest invention came in bat-making. The drying of the bats. Manufacturers started drying the willow to get rid of the moisture content in it. It had a two-fold effect. The overall weight of the bat reduced significantly and the size of the bat increased making way for bigger depths and edges. The current bats are lighter than the one used in the early 20th century but look much heavy and hit much harder. These bats suffer in durability though. Modern players change bats more often than the older players many of whom used to play with only a single bat in a season. Effectively the bats used by Bradman, Sobers, Trumper were the same shape as the modern bats but the increase in depth of the hitting area and thus increase in size of the edges has resulted in bats looking monstrous.
The alarming rate in the increase in the width and depth of the bat prompted ICC to create restrictions around it. Keeping restriction on the length and width of bats unchanged the ICC limited the thickness of the edge to be 40mm and the overall depth to be 67 mm at the most.
Batsmen generally go for balance when it comes to picking the right kind of bat. Something that feels like an extension of the arm. Easier to maneuver as per your strength — in the body and in the shot making. There will be more innovations in the bat making process as the game continues to progress to the next level. Until then choose your weapon of destruction wisely.