The Indian team looked a little bit frazzled on Tuesday morning as they rocked up for training at the County Ground in Taunton. It wasn’t surprising, considering they had spent three hours driving from Derby, and came straight to the ground. But they took the field quickly enough, and looked keen to hit the nets.
There was a slight delay though. At the edge of the ground, five or six of them, along with fielding coach Biju George, could be seen handing over some bats to a young man in a black T shirt with the letters H and M on it. Then this young man picked up the bats and started walking away with them.
Now Indian cricketers are among the most possessive about their bats (some don’t even like others shadow batting with their bats). Curious, this correspondent joined him to accompany the bats to their destination. They didn’t go far; adjacent to the County Ground, but within its premises, the blades were escorted to the workshop of bat makers Millichamp and Hall.
Robert Chambers, master bat maker, has been making bats for 21 years, and has been the owner of the business for the last 14 of them. Standing just outside his workshop, where there is a picture of Sachin Tendulkar with him, he told Firstpost about the other cricketers who have walked through those doors and used his bats, besides the Master Blaster.
“Whoever is touring pops in”, he said. “Last year we had Pakistan. I’ve made bats for Rahul Dravid, Suresh Raina” he added. The Waugh brothers, Chris Gayle and Misbah-Ul-Haq are also on that list. “When the touring teams come through, most come to us, [as] we’re the only ground-based bat company.”
Chambers talks about his Tendulkar story, which is from when India toured England in 2011. “He had a bat made by me on a Saturday morning” he began. “He used it in the nets and then he phones me at 8pm [asking for alterations]. Now Sunday is a day of rest in the UK, but he is the kind of guy you get out of bed for. So I had to come in and alter his bat. Wouldn’t do that for many people.”
The 37-year-old bat-maker is quite well known in the professional circuit, and has provided bats to a number of high profile players, although they often use the labels of other companies for commercial reasons. He started learning about bat-making when he was 16, first from Julian Millichamp, the co-founder of Millichamp and Hall, and later James Laver, now of New Zealand’s Laver and Wood Ltd. While he said he found bat-making ‘relaxing’ since it came naturally to him, it is not the most straightforward skill to learn.
“You start as an apprentice”, he said. “Apprenticeship is somewhere between five to 10 years to become very good. So it’s quite difficult to pick up for a lot of people. You need a bit of artistic flair.
“Bats are compressed to give you performance, so we’re looking for the sound and feel you get from the middle of the bat. It’s very much like tuning a musical instrument”, he added.
Watch any of the number of ‘how to make a bat’ videos online, and you will see that making one is a far from a simple process. While bigger companies like Gunn and Moore use computer-guided machines to cut their bats, Millichamp and Hall do everything by hand, using draw knives and other hand-operated tools to shape the wood.
It means that the bats Chambers’ and his team make are bespoke, rather than standardised. In a way, their bats have a bit more personality. “We don’t use any templates, it’s all just hand-to-eye coordination,” said Chambers. “People find it fascinating; in the UK, there aren’t a lot of products manufactured by hand anymore.”
It is quite fitting for a man living in a county where willow grows naturally to be associated with bat making. Yet Chambers is one of a dying breed. He is one of only 20 bat-makers left in the UK, by his estimation. And part of the reason is the burgeoning bat industry in India.
“Most of the small brands buy their bats from India. Those guys make an awful lot of bats, whereas most English manufacturers are more boutique.”
The ability to customize a bat also means that some of Chambers’ clients can be quite finicky when it comes to exactly what they want. “Some people want bats with a certain number of grains, some want profiles with half redwood-half white wood.” He singled out former England player Nick Compton — also one of the few who uses their bats with their labels — as the fussiest.
“I spend a lot of time trying to find people magic wands”, he laughs. With Harry Potter’s 20th anniversary only days past, one might fittingly call him the ‘Ollivander of cricket bats’.