Bats out of Hell

Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. (Peter Drucker)

It was in 2008 when I first realised what all the fuss was about. It was my first season umpiring. I had arrived at the ground earlier than normal. On my way out to have a look at the wicket a few guys from the home team were warming up and I picked up one of the bats I saw laying around. As a player I’d done a fair amount of time holding a bat – in 1978 I achieved my only half century, opening for my university in a pre-season friendly against a technical college. It was my best sporting achievement until I ran a marathon in 1986 (which I managed to finish last week).

I stopped playing cricket around 30 years ago because I was regularly working Saturdays. And other than a few friendlies in a municipal ground with a less than serious pub team, I had not held a bat for 20 years. Lifting that bat was a real eye opener. I could barely hold the damn thing such was the weight. It was like carrying a slab of concrete around with you.

It’s quite easy to spend £700-plus on a cricket bat. The marketing guys at the likes of Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra and Gray-Nicolls  list some of the world’s best players as users of the top end of their ranges. To pay Ben Stokes to endorse these bats, the league cricketers are going to have to stump up money that in some cases is way beyond their pay grade. The fact that the world’s best batsman Steve Smith is happy to use a relatively modestly priced New Balance DC 1080 which retails at around £250 tells you everything you need to know about marketing techniques.

Some players in the league regularly travel to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to visit family and buy locally manufactured unbranded bats. A captain showed me a range of bats that looked and felt similar to the £200-£300 bats that are popular among league cricketers. The only difference was the price tag, the bats from Asia were up to 70 percent cheaper.

From the best view in the house I see and hear these non-branded manufactured bats making the same cracking sound as the Stokes-endorsed version. And when a batter finds the sweet spot in a glorious cover drive, the ball still arrives at the rope in a flash. Branded or unbranded, today’s bats are operated by seriously strong guys and this combo of muscle and bat weight send the ball a long way further than in my day.

Advertising gurus fill their pockets from endorsements by international stars buying into the dream of emulating the world’s best. But of course, the village blacksmith is never going to be a Stokes or a Sachin Tendulkar. So where you might expect the said blacksmith to buy his chisels from Fujikawa than Wickes, why would he want to spend a small fortune on a piece of cricket equipment he might be using, with the greatest respect, for ten minutes.

How people spend their money is not an umpire’s business, but if your level is second or third tier league cricket (the level I played and now umpire at) then a cap of around £150 is more than enough. The one and only bat I ever bought (£15 in 1973 and probably  worth around £120 today) was more than enough for a bit-part cricketer like myself. As the greatest batsman in the history of the game demonstrated, a decent batsman can score runs using a cricket stump.

I like it when a nine-ten-Jack batter, who at the 40-50 age range still turns his arm over for a five-over spell, comes out to bat carrying a piece of wood that looks similar to my Gray-Nicolls objet d’art. It takes me back to the era when you would be served by a shop assistant wearing a brown cotton work coat and where off-white cricket trousers, shirts and sweaters would be neatly folded and placed inside a wooden drawer. The shop assistant would have knowledge about the product and would take pride in representing this one-branch family sports shop on the high street. And for five months months of the year (including pre-season nets) that bat would be an important part of your life. One week you would be holding it but not using it as your off stump cartwheeled towards the next village. The following Saturday you would arrive home excitedly recounting the thirty-odd runs  facilitated by your trusted piece of willow, gently caressing it as if you were greeting a loyal Labrador Retriever.

The slabs of concrete are rewriting cricket’s laws of physics. Today’s defensive prod to point is yesterday’s firm drive. The only injury I have suffered to date while officiating was the straight drive that connected with my shin on the full, missing a bone by not much. By the time I reacted I was down and out.

Proper batters (those who shine in Divisions 2 and 3 and who may have an occasional outing for the firsts in the Premier League) need the concrete slab protein fix. These guys are in the gym five times a week to build up muscle to not only carry a weight that Precious McKenzie might have struggled with, but also to ensure that if they are paying north of £400 for a cricket bat, they may as well get the full value of the train fare.

Because that is how cricket is played today.