In November 2015, at the first-ever day/night Test in Adelaide, a picture taken by Cricket Australia showed Barry Richards, former South African opener, holding the bat he had used to score 325 in a day for South Australia against Western Australia.
In his other hand, he held the Gray-Nicolls “Kaboom” that Australian opener David Warner uses. The newer bat was four times as thick as the older version. The stark contrast between the two did a lot to reignite the debate about bat sizes.
The Marylebone Cricket Club’s (MCC’s) cricket committee which met in Mumbai last month took up what was perhaps the most contentious suggestion from the custodians of the laws of cricket this time—restricting the size of bats.
The committee recommended that bats should have a maximum edge width of 40mm, a figure that will mean little to most players, but may see some batsmen giving up their current bats. Only a handful of the best players have bats with edges bigger than this, like Warner, whose bat is almost as thick as it is wide. Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard of the West Indies have massive edges too.
Complaining about “big bats” ruining the balance between bat and ball has become a familiar trope. Former players will wonder wistfully what they could have achieved with the pieces of wood that a modern batsman has at his disposal.
The basic allowable dimensions of cricket bats have not changed since the laws of cricket were codified in the 18th century. A bat must be no more than 38 inches in length and not more than 4.25 inches in width. These laws on dimensions were created after the “Monster Bat Incident of 1771”. Unfortunately for fans of pulp-fiction novels from the 1950s, this wasn’t a man-sized flying mammal, but an attempt by Thomas White of Chertsey to use a bat as wide as the wicket in a match against Hambledon in September 1771.
While the length and width of bats have remained unchanged in almost 250 years, the depth of blades has increased significantly over the last 20 years or so. In the past, the willow that was used to make cricket bats was pressed, a process which compacts the wood to increase durability.
Now the wood is not pressed anywhere near as much, meaning that bats weigh the same as the old-style bats, between 2.7 and 3 pounds for the most part, but are significantly thicker. The reason for this change in bat-making technique is the hope that it will increase the size of the “sweet spot” in the middle of the bat.
Players too are placing increasing importance on bats in the quest for small percentage increases in performance.
This increased middle isn’t what concerned the MCC cricket committee, their concern is about the size of bat edges. The chairman, former England captain Mike Brearley, told reporters: “It was pointed out to us that in 1905, the width of bats was 16mm and that, by 1980, it had increased to 18mm. It is now an average, in professional cricket, of 35-40mm and sometimes up to 60mm. That shows how fast the change has been.”
Australian great Ricky Ponting, a member of the committee, expressed concerns about mishits clearing the boundary.
Trent Woodhill, batting coach for the Melbourne Stars and Delhi Daredevils, told Mint: “The spine size I can live with, but some of these guys are hitting sixes off the middle of the edge. The restrictions will separate the proper power hitters from the pretend ones. It doesn’t matter if the sweet spot is sending the ball further, you just don’t want to see mishits going for six.”
Mark Butcher, a former England Test player and regular TV pundit, disagrees. “It won’t make a shred of difference. Pitches decide the balance between bat and ball. If you try to hit more balls for a four or six, more balls go for a four or six. If most players are built like Vivian Richards, more players will hit it like Vivian Richards. No bat could hit the ball out of the park when shouldering arms.”
That is the issue for the MCC but bats are just one aspect of it. Players are now fitter, stronger and more attacking. It is impossible to tell players not to go to the gym or to refrain from practising attacking shots. This is an arms race and restricting the bat-edge size will merely prompt bat manufacturers to become smarter with designs.
Nick Wilton, the brand manager for Gray-Nicolls, the bat-maker that provides kits to Alastair Cook, Warner and India’s latest Test triple centurion, Karun Nair, among others, is not convinced that this will make much difference since the 40mm edge restriction is close to what most players now have. He admits, though, that it may have a psychological impact. If you think your bat won’t send the ball as far, you may be less inclined to try.
“[Bats] are a factor, but there are a number of others, especially in shorter forms of cricket,” says Wilton.
Any restriction, he says, will mean that Gray-Nicolls and other bat manufacturers will have to engage in some “creative bat-making”.
Ultimately, cricket bats are made from a natural product, and as Wilton points out, “a good piece of willow is a good piece of willow”.
The impact of these recommendations cannot be predicted. But if people are expecting a return to the days when a six was a rarity rather than the norm, they will be disappointed.
Peter Miller is a freelance cricket writer and podcaster. He is the author of 28 Days Data—England’s Troubled Relationship With One-Day Cricket.