Rohit Sharma was batting on 36 in India’s first innings of the recently-concluded Brisbane Test when he hit a straight-drive off Cameron Green for four. It was nothing more than a push but the ball raced away to the fence, leaving Adam Gilchrist in commentary wondering which bat the opener was using.

It has happened to us all at some stage. We see these touch-players like Rohit, Ajinkya Rahane, Mahela Jayawardene, Hashim Amla, Mark Waugh, Saeed Anwar, Damien Martyn and say: “Gee, that’s a good bat he’s playing with.”

Shubman Gill’s performance in that historic Brisbane Test also caught one’s attention for more reasons than one. He scored runs for India and helped them win the match but his time at the crease also highlighted the bat he was using, which was conspicuous due to the absence of a logo on it. And that was a bit of a shame because again, the sweet sound off his bat left many wondering who the manufacturer was.

Now, it was a conscious decision on Gill’s part to play with a naked bat in that Test match.

In India, a country which manufactures 95% of the bats used by international cricketers and has a cricket equipment industry that was estimated to be worth Rs 350 crore in 2016, players often earn contracts with manufacturers from a young age.

The process is straightforward: bat-making companies scout for young talents in domestic cricket, often with the help of reputed former players, in order to catch them early at a reasonable price. They then sign yearly contracts which state that the player must use the manufacturer’s logo in return for a fixed payment and a set number of bats for the season. This is beneficial to both parties – the player gets income and equipment while the manufacturer gets advertisement.

For decades, this was the norm for international stars too. They would have a contract with one manufacturer and use their label in exchange of money and equipment. However, all of that changed once Kapil Dev signed a contract with Power in the late 1980s. The World Cup-winning captain received a hefty sum for using the Power logo on his bats and that one association went on to have a profound effect on the bat-manufacturing industry in India. Going forward, the more popular players would sign two contracts – one with the manufacturer for equipment and another with a sticker sponsor for income.

In the following years, brands like MRF, Hero Honda, Reebok and Britannia became household names thanks to their stickers on the bats of India’s finest cricketers. As is the case even today, the manufacturer of the bat would be a different company but the player would receive revenue from another company for using their sticker on the willow. This, of course, didn’t go down well with manufacturers who approached the International Cricket Council in the early 2000s to get more recognition for their products, but their appeal fell on deaf ears.

A point worth noting here is that because of cricket’s enormous popularity in India, manufacturers never really had the option of severing ties with a player. There are plenty of bat-making companies in the country and a player can easily jump ship. Manufacturers rely greatly on word-of-mouth publicity and ‘dressing room talk’ to attract new players and beat the competition, which is why disassociating with a player is never in their interest.

But over time, manufacturers developed a system that earned them direct revenue, if not recognition, through their association with players. Earlier, players would have small stickers or engravings of the manufacturer’s label on the side or bottom of the bat and therefore, manufacturers wouldn’t charge players any money for supplying them with bats. For manufacturers, from a product marketing standpoint, even a small label on the side is a win as a serious cricketer would notice it. But once players started sporting only sponsored labels on their bats, manufacturers decided to charge the MRP for each bat. So now, a sponsor could buy 40-50 bats in bulk for its client and then go ahead and replace the logo.

Over the past couple of decades, players signing hefty contracts for their bat labels has become standard practice. For regular folk, the bat Sachin Tendulkar used was by MRF, like Rahul Dravid’s was Britannia’s, Virender Sehwag’s was Hero Honda’s and Mohammad Azharuddin’s was Reebok’s. Current India captain Virat Kohli uses an ‘MRF bat’ too. In 2017, he signed an eight-year deal worth more than Rs 100 crore with the tyre maker.

It is this mega revenue generating opportunity that Gill was seeking when he carried a label-less bat at the Gabba.

The argument made by manufacturers when they appealed to the ICC was that they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. The governing body of the sport, which is always likely to prioritise more revenue, had placed a set of rules which allowed major brands, the kind that bat manufacturers can hardly compete with, to pay exorbitant amounts and secure the front and back of a bat for advertisement. This system pumped money into the sport, was profitable for players, sponsors and the ICC, but left manufacturers in the shadows. The skill, effort and resources to make a bat, which is of course the most important piece of equipment for any batsman, was put in by the manufacturer, but there was hardly any way for a layman to know it was their product.

ICC rules

The ICC’s rules and regulations regarding clothing and equipment state that the players must be ‘allowed an opportunity to obtain some revenue from controlled bat advertising’.

Player’s Bat Logo – means an ICC Approved Logo of a sponsor of a player to be carried on the player’s bat; provided that such Logo shall not be either:

a) of, or confusingly similar to, or likely to be perceived as suggesting a connection with:

1) an entity which conflicts (whether through being a competitor or otherwise) with the exclusivity of any sponsor, supplier, or commercial partner of the Member Board of the player concerned or of an ICC Event; or

2) a Manufacturer, other than the Manufacturer of the item of cricket equipment it is to be carried on; or

b) a Betting Logo.

ICC shall have the final say in determining whether any such conflict or circumstances exist and no player may pursue any action against ICC or IDI, or against his team’s ICC Member Board should he be precluded from displaying a Player’s Bat Logo by reason of the same.

No individual Commercial Logos shall be worn by any team member, save for the carrying of a Player’s Bat Logo on bats.   

According to the rules laid out by the ICC, a company doesn’t need to be manufacturing bats itself to be allowed to get its logo on a player’s bat. All it needs to do is market cricket bats with its label on it. This means that any company – be it MRF, CEAT, Nike, Adidas, Puma, Reebok, etc. – can purchase bats from manufacturers like SG, SS, BDM, BAS, etc., put their own labels on the bats and market them. This is enough for the ICC to allow that company to land a bat logo deal with a top player. That company becomes a ‘registered sponsor’ with the ICC.

From a legal standpoint, there is nothing wrong in this system. The bat is seen as advertising space. It is one of the few bits of inventory that’s in the player’s control. The other things they wear are part of the team’s inventory, like the labels on the clothes. However, the tools of the trade like that bat, gloves, helmet, pads are in the player’s control. So once you get a product, it’s yours, whether you purchase it or get it as a gift. In copyright law it’s called the first sale doctrine – once you’ve completed the sale, the ownership of the goods is with the buyer and it’s up to them to do whatever they want to with it.

A nod to the artist

The attention that batsmen give to finding the perfect bat cannot be overstated. It is, after all, their most important piece of equipment. There is so much that batsmen obsess over when it comes to bats – the weight, balance, grains, bulge at the back, sweet spot, size of the handle, size of the edges, the grip. Batsmen protect their bats inside their shirts if there is a sudden shower, they use certain bats only in matches – like Tendulkar did for years – in order to lengthen the willow’s life, they have specific technicians they send their bats to for repair, and they often put the stickers themselves – like Kohli said he does.

There’s a lot that goes into making a top quality bat. Each player has specific requirements and it isn’t exactly cheap to make one. And making a bat isn’t an exact science either. Every bat is unique in a certain way because it is not cut from the same piece of wood. Bat makers are highly trained people, there’s plenty of skill involved in their work. Earlier, bats were much thinner and it wasn’t easy to hit boundaries. But now, even top-edges go for sixes. So a batsman’s ability to accumulate runs has increased because of the better quality bats. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the degree of success a batsman can achieve depends greatly on the quality of their bat. But how often do we see a player acknowledge the manufacturer? MS Dhoni did it, in what turned out to be his final international assignment, and ended up making headlines for it.

No one begrudges the fact that players have bat sponsors through which they earn more money. In fact, it’s good for the game that they have another avenue to generate revenue. But shouldn’t the ICC ensure that bat manufacturers, who are key stakeholders in the game, get recognition too? Shouldn’t there be a rule that allows the manufacturer to have a logo alongside the sponsor’s where it is clearly visible? The ICC must ensure that bat manufacturers aren’t reduced to these hidden figures.

Another point worth considering is that when the industry around cricket does well, it’s good for the sport overall. Even from a business sense, the ICC must look at this. It’s isn’t just about the players earning money. If bat manufacturers are helped to grow as brands then maybe there’ll come a day when they could compete with the likes of MRF and CEAT. Maybe they’ll be earning enough to sponsor players themselves. But for that to happen, the industry must be allowed to grow.

The world takes notice when Roger Federer waves his Wilson wand, when Lionel Messi dazzles in his Adidas boots, when PV Sindhu brings glory with her Li-Ning racquet. Bat manufacturers deserve their share of glory too. The ICC should find a way to give a nod to the artist who makes the bat.

“We don’t have any other choice but to live with this,” a senior official of one of India’s leading bat manufacturers told “We even raised this issue when the post of ICC chief was held by Indians but they didn’t help either, so what’s the point? The ICC only cares about revenue. We accepted this situation 20 years ago. If we don’t give bats to a player, another company will.”