The malleable, ultimately pregnable psyche of a batsman can turn to just one physical prop, and that's the bat itself. With its owner beset by doubt and by failure, never more than one ball from disaster, it's no wonder that the cricket bat becomes more than an interchangable tool (and if you don't believe it, just ask any cricketer a simple question - what was your first bat? - and then pin back your ears for a five-minute answer).
That it was once alive; that it is willow, the rare and ancient wood of diviners and dowsers; that it is hand-made using old tools; that its creation is dependent to a degree on the arcane knowledge and intuition of the bat maker; that it is, ultimately, a one-off, as individual as a fingerprint; all add to the feeling of destiny when the right one falls into your hands. Like Excalibur, there is, you presume, one out there that's got your name on it.
In an age when people queue overnight to buy an identikit phone assembled in sweatshop conditions, the idea that something is made so organically has a sense of myth about it. And never has the cricket bat been as fetishised: its last decade has been its most glorious. In the 70s it got sexy: the Scoop, the V12, the Jumbo, but in the noughties it got dirty; thick edges, massive profiles, deep bows. It has developed its own language, it has reinvented itself from nut-brown, hard-pressed utility club to bone white, shark-finned driver, its new-found power happily coinciding with the rise of a format of the game that would showcase it like never before.
There are more brands than ever; there are internet forums on which batmakers themselves are minor celebrities. In the same way that a bog-standard Ford car of 2012 performs better and is more technologically advanced than the marque of twenty years ago, so the standard, mid-range bat is unlike anything available to players of just a couple of generations back. There is probably just enough leeway in the bat's physical dimensions to allow the makers to tweak and spin each year, to let them salami-slice the market.
With that, there is now a prime cut, a slice so rare that it takes the object beyond function and into form, from artisanship and into art. Newbery, noble podshavers of Sussex, offer the Cenkos, a bat that costs a grand, made to the buyer's specifications. That though, however beautiful (and it is) is still a tool. Laver & Wood's Signature range is something very slightly different. In thirteen years, James Laver has found just 87 pods of willow good enough for the Signature, and the first of those he kept for himself.
The extraordinary thing about the others is they are supplied with an exact copy of the bat made from the next grade of willow down, "if you prefer to keep the Signature as a piece of art". It also comes with a display stand. It's strange and wonderful and slightly sad to think of a bat that might actually be too beautiful to use, and yet here it is. That James Laver makes them far away on the edge of the world in New Zealand, mailing them out once they are finished (and the bounty of $1,999NZ is handed over) only adds to the mystery of their creation. Even Laver himself is slightly in awe: "The finished bat is always a marvel to behold, and it is often a shame to let it leave the workshop".
Bats like that are at the very edge of actually being bats, unique and beautiful objects that transcend their purpose to exist simply as art, as examples of what can be done. They fire the imagination, not the ball.
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