Gray-Nicolls Master Bat Maker Alex Hohenkerk tells us how a cricket bat is made.
Gray-Nicolls is the longest-running bat making firm in the United Kingdom, at 162 years old. The factory is based in Robertsbridge in East Sussex, always making cricket bats from the highest quality English Willow, grown on our own land up and down the country.
One of the reasons we can make such high-quality cricket equipment is that we’ve been doing that for 160 years. I was taught by a gentleman that’s currently done 56 years’ service; they’ve seen everything, they’ve learnt everything, and that’s great for me as a new batmaker to learn from.
We use English Willow, specifically cricket bat willow, it’s a specific type of tree, Salix Alba Caerulea. That’s grown for 15-20 years. The butt of the tree will be brought to the yard, cut into 29inch lengths. These are then split, so this is where we can get our first look at the quality of timber that we’ve grown, checking for faults or any issues at all.
What we are then aiming to create is as many clefts as possible with each split or round. A cleft is a sawn split, and each singular cleft makes one cricket bat.
The timber is then dried – this allows us to get the timber to the core moisture content that we feel is optimum for cricket bats for performance and lifespan.
With quality control we’re looking at knots, blemishes and stains, where they are, what they are, and how that’s going to affect the finished product. We’ll then compress the timber – the better it takes the compression the better performance of that bat is going to be., and you can hear the fibres tensioning as it goes through. Willow itself is incredibly soft – without putting it through this compression the bat will never hit the ball very far.
Once it has been compressed we can fit the handle, and once its handle is fitted it’s given over to a final bat maker who will do the final shaping, balancing, sanding and polishing, to give you that lovely finished product.
It’s a great feeling when you get to the end of a make. You could be looking, from a tree to a finished product, including the drying time, anywhere between 2-3 months.
Every piece that we’re making through here is a tailor-made piece, looking after our international players like Jonny Bairstow and Zak Crawley, who are after a custom-made piece of kit.
Historically we’ve looked after lots of international players, at one point in the 1970’s every Test match opening pair were Gray-Nicolls players. We’ve looked after people like Geoffrey Boycott, Richie Benaud, right back into history people like W.G Grace, Prince Ranjitsinhji, right the way through to David Gower, Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain, Alastair Cook, and it’s all coming out of a small village in East Sussex.
I’m very proud of what we achieve here. Players come to Gray-Nicolls because of the quality of the kit. We are passionate about making cricket bats – it’s cricket bats that the name is built on, and that’s the thing - if you’re a batsman it’s the tool of your trade, it’s what you have to be most confident in using, so you come to the best.