The cricket bats that were around in the early years of the game are very different from modern day bats. In the following article, I’m now going to look at the various stages of evolution of the cricket bat.
Early History of Cricket Bat
The first mention of the term ‘cricket bat’ dates back to 1624 when a player is said to have hit a fielder with his cricket bat to prevent them from taking a catch. Unfortunately for that fielder, he was killed in the process and his assailant was taken to court.
Later laws would have ruled the batsman in question to be given out Obstructing the Field. Clearly it would have been little consolation for the specific member of the fielding side.
Early Cricket Bats
The earliest cricket bat was curved and would have been like a hockey stick that is used today. Surviving examples may have looked primitive but they were more suited to the game at the time which exclusively saw underarm bowling being used.
When round-arm bowling was introduced in the 1770s, bats became parallel and used an even width down both sides.
Which is the Oldest Cricket Bat in the World?
A bat dating from 1729 is believed to be the oldest example still in existence. It carries the curved design which was prevalent in cricket at the time. The cricket bat can still be viewed as it is on display in the Sandham Room at The Oval cricket ground.
Evolution of the Cricket Bat in the 18th-19th Centuries
Those first bats are remarkably similar to hockey sticks with a thin blade and a hook at the end. These hockey stick bats were the first bats used but they started to die out in the early years of the 17th century.
Bats with a curved end started to be phased in before the advent of round-arm bowling saw bats develop into something that resembles those modern bats which are used today.
Introduction of MCC Laws
As design evolved, the laws of the game had to react to keep up. In 1771 in a match between Reigate and Hambledon, a player strode to the wicket using a bat that was as wide as the stumps.
Something clearly had to be done and cricket’s laws began to be altered accordingly. Later in that same year, 1771, the regulation width of a cricket bat was set at 4.25 inches by the Marylebone Cricket Club.
The White Willow
One thing that hasn’t changed too much in the history of the cricket bat is the fact that the vast majority have been made from willow. However, there is one key difference between the bats from the early 18th century and the ones that followed.
Up until the early 19th century, the equipment was fashioned from the heartwood of the willow tree. This meant that earlier bats appear much darker in appearance. From around 1890, the new generation of bat manufacturers used the sapwood of the willow tree. This is much lighter and gives bats that ‘white willow’ experience.
Cricket Bat Dimensions by the Turn of the Century
The width of the cricket bat had been set at 4.25 inches in 1771 and that hasn’t changed since that point. All that was left to address was a designated length as bats continued to be produced in varying sizes.
Accordingly, in 1835, the law was changed to state that cricket bats could be no more than 38 inches in length.
Cricket Bat Revolution of the 20th Century
The game of cricket really started to evolve from the 1900s onwards. Australia and England had already played the first test match in 1877 but cricket became a more global sport in the new century. South Africa, India, New Zealand and Pakistan were among those who expanded the family.
At the same time, the game really evolved. Most of the greatest batsmen and fast bowlers appeared in the 20th century. Cricket bat development needed to change to keep pace with the evolving game.
Lighter and Bigger Bats
Laws had been brought in to address the length and width of a cricket bat but, at the start of the new century, there was no legislation in terms of depth or weight.
By the 1920s and 1930, some of the best batsmen of the age began to emerge. Jack Hobbs and Don Bradman of England and Australia, respectively were two of the best examples.
By comparison to the modern game, bats were relatively light. Remember that there were no official forms of limited overs cricket at that stage so players were more likely to accumulate runs rather than look to power the ball over the boundary.
Hobbs and Bradman, along with prolific England batsman Walter Hammond, all used bats that weighed in at two pounds two ounces which is exceptionally light by modern standards. Others, such as Victor Trumper, went even lighter at two pounds.
Bill Ponsford, who played for Australia between 1924 and 1934 used a heavier cricket bat at two pounds 14 ounces but he was very much the exception.
All of this began to change when limited overs cricket was played professionally from the 1960s onwards. One Day Internationals began in 1971 and players now needed to rely on power more than touch.
If we look at great batsmen such as Clive Lloyd and Sachin Tendulkar, their bats weighed comfortably over three pounds.
The Evolution of the Sweet Spot
The sweet spot is a specific point on the cricket bat where the ball will be hit with perfect timing and leaves the bat with maximum acceleration. As a batsman, you’ll know when you find it because there is no jarring of the hands and it feels as though you have barely hit the crikcet ball.
Many sweet spots, even those from the early days, tend to be found in the lower middle portion of the bat but there has been some evolution.
Gray Nicolls were among the first to try to develop things with their ‘scoop’ bats. By hollowing out the back of the cricket bat, they could provide more weight distribution and a greater sweet spot as a result.
Since that introduction, there have been double scoops plus experimentations with plugs, hollows and cores. Sweet spots have increased and that’s why you’ll now see many mishit shots reach the boundary.
Introduction of Kashmir Willow
Traditionally, cricket bats have been made from English willow trees. It’s considered to be the most hard-wearing material and it gives the players a better ‘feel’ when they hit the ball. English willow can also have a larger sweet spot.
The first producers of Kashmir Willow started to emerge in the 1970s. This is a more brittle material so bats won’t last as long and there is a smaller sweet spot. However, when the cricket ball hits that sweet spot it can travel further and that’s why some professionals like the Kashmir willow.
Cricket Bats in the 21st Century
With the introduction of T20 cricket, bats have evolved once again. Many are much heavier than before with bats of around 3.2lbs in use,
As the new millennium progressed, two issues caught the attention of the International Cricket Council (ICC). The areas of concern were the depth of the new bats and the size of the edges.
ICC Bat Size Laws
The new laws relating to the size of cricket bats were introduced by the ICC in 2017. Under the new regulations, the length remained unchanged at 38 inches. Using metric terms, the latest legislation states that bats must be no more than 108mm in width, 67mm in depth and 40mm on the edges.
It was an essential law in the sense that the game had started to favour the batsmen to an extent that was unacceptable.
Many new materials have been tried in the bat making process. Dennis Lillee’s aluminum bat of 1979 was very quickly outlawed but there could be a future where different types of woods are used. In an age where we are all looking for sustainable solutions, bamboo could provide the answer.
It’s a very versatile wood and you may even be wearing socks made from this material as you read this. In terms of cricket bats, one of the advantages is that the whole of the tree can be used whereas with willow, there can be around 20% wastage.
Bamboo is denser so bats could be made lighter and still achieve the same performance. There could be a bigger sweet spot and, in terms of the sound off the cricket bat, observers have said that they couldn’t tell the difference between bamboo and willow.
Bamboo bats are currently banned by the ICC but the council welcomes new research so ‘watch this space’.
It really is fascinating to see just how cricket bats have developed since the first use of the term was seen almost 400 years ago. In my 40 years of playing, I’ve noticed how club bats perform so much better now than the ones in the past.
Future developments are equally fascinating and I’ll be following updates on bamboo with interest as the cricket bat continues to evolve.