For a batsman, zeroing in on the perfect bat is a meticulous process. The feel of the bat determines how every shot is played and so, a lot of thought goes into finding the right weight, balance and pickup. Often, the obsession doesn’t end there. Batsmen can get quite quirky when it comes to bats. They could own ten bats of the highest quality, just to their liking, but still fixate on one particular piece of willow. Since that special bat brought them runs, they could perform every possible surgery on it to keep it going. It’s an all-consuming relationship that batsmen share with their bats.
In terms of cricket bats used by top players, Indian manufacturers have always faced an uphill battle. Indian cricketers, just like players from across the world, preferred bats made in England for the longest time. Manufacturers like Gray-Nicolls, Gunn & More, Sykes and Duncan Fearnley enjoyed a monopoly of sorts in international cricket even as the game spread to different countries in the 20th century.
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“Back in the day, through to the 1980s, Indian cricketers surely had a fascination for English bats,” Jatin Sareen, Managing Director of SS, told Scroll.in.
Sanspareils Greenlands was, perhaps, the only Indian brand that managed to gain popularity, thanks to Sunil Gavaskar’s exploits in the 1970s and ‘80s. But that was about it as far as Indian bat manufacturers were concerned. It was only when Sachin Tendulkar burst onto the scene that things started to change.
“Once the Tendulkar era began, Indian bats started picking up. He introduced a new shape to bats, the one with a big curve,” said Sareen.
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While Tendulkar’s affinity with local brands triggered an upswing for the cricket equipment industry in India, manufacturers were soon faced with another big challenge – the introduction of shorter formats. The rise of T20 International cricket brought along with it an unprecedented test of durability for bats.
Traditionally, players would spend a considerable amount of time preparing a bat before using it in a match. They would knock it in and oil it to ensure the grains opened up and the ball made a sweet sound off the wood.
Someone like Gavaskar would try to ensure he used just a couple of bats for an entire season. For any series or tour, Rahul Dravid would have a maximum of four bats in his kitbag at one time. He would say he gets confused if he has more bats.
However, that isn’t the case anymore. With the volume of matches increasing consistently, players don’t have the luxury of working on a new bat. Just a few hits in the nets and it has to be ready to use in a match. Furthermore, with batsmen getting more aggressive as the formats become shorter, the shelf life of bats has reduced drastically.
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“We’re seeing a lot more bats breaking than we used to say 20 years ago,” Paras Anand, Marketing Director of SG, told Scroll.in.
“What we have started doing in recent years is making the bottom of the bat thicker. The bottom of every bat is compressed. It isn’t just about T20 anymore. Across formats, cricketers use pretty much the same kind of bats. Players in the previous eras had the mindset of not hitting the ball too hard in the longer formats. But that’s not what it’s like these days. If you look at players like Rohit Sharma and Hardik Pandya, if they are in the zone, they will go for their shots irrespective of the format. They are all stroke-players. They aren’t many Cheteshwar Pujaras.”
Anand added: “Earlier, if someone would bowl a yorker, you would try to defend it and not swing your bat hard to whack it. But now with formats like T20, where every ball counts, we have to ensure that the bottom of the bat can withstand the force. A lot of R&D goes into it, many advancements have been made in our processes, and we have strong quality control in place.”
Shorter formats and the need for higher strike-rates have also led to a change in the weight and profile of bats. Essentially, a bat can be of two kinds – one that has the maximum amount of weight at the bottom and the other that is bulky a little higher. While Tendulkar was famous for using a heavy bat, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni following in his footsteps later, most players gravitated towards lighter bats due to the demands of white-ball cricket.
“Players like Tendulkar and Dhoni would want a bat that has the maximum amount of weight at the bottom. Their bats weighed 1,300 grams,” said Anand. “Then there are players like Dravid, Pujara and Virat Kohli, who want the maximum amount of wood a little higher on the bat. These days, even big hitters like Pandya use bats that weigh 1,180 grams. Rishabh Pant has bats that weigh 1,170 grams. Kohli, too, uses a very light bat, it weighs around 1,160 grams. So the weight has gone down, which means it is more challenging for the manufacturers to ensure that the bats don’t break. The bat has to be durable without losing its punch.”
Bats have come a long way. They are now manufactured on a large scale in almost every cricketing country. Their demand has seen a steady increase with more matches being played and more aggression being shown by batsmen. Despite all this, though, the biggest change that cricket bats have withstood is, perhaps, their personal relationship with the players. Obsessing over each bat is slowly becoming a thing of the past.
“There has been a drastic change over the years,” said Anand. “Earlier, players weren’t as fussy about their bats as they are these days. Today, everyone sees the number of bats that a substitute brings out to the field if a player wants a replacement mid-innings. This is because of the amount of cricket that is being played and the nature of it. Earlier, perhaps, companies didn’t have the production capacity to provide so many bats. But these days, some cricketers end up using 40-50 bats in a year.
“Players know that it’s not like they have access to only a limited number of bats and they have to make sure each bat lasts an entire season. They ask for replacements all the time. They’ll simply pick up the phone and say ‘bring me four more bats’. The easiest players to satisfy were Dravid, Dhoni and Virender Sehwag. Nowadays, players know that they have access and that the sponsors will take care of them. It’s a major change in the mindset.”