Thursday 6 March 2014

A day at Newbery

What is it with bats, those inanimate chunks of wood that somehow, sometimes appear to live in the hands? I wrote a piece about the myths surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's for ESPN's book on the maestro - the bat he used for the great rush that took him to ninety-nine international centuries, its grain split open and darkened by the dye of a thousand cricket balls, told a story of obsession. There was the time I met Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, and Punter (as I never call him) remembered his first: 'a Duncan Fearnley, size five, kept patching it up, taping it up... still got it somewhere'. Mike Hussey's was a County Clubman that cost $19, a sum that cast him as a rich kid in Ponting's mind.

The role call of mine is long and noble: the first a Stuart Surridge, way too heavy, the big red initials of its logo stamped into the wood; a St Peter my dad acquired from a man on a building site; a GN 100 Scoop (got my first ever hundred with that bad boy); a Powerspot in one of those odd white poly covers that came along for a while; a couple of Slazengers, including a V12; A County Geoffrey Boycott signature (never got out with that one... well, sometimes); Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra... had 'em all and and plenty of others too.

There's something totemistic about them, especially now, with their mad names and their glowing stickers, and yet even though cricket bats, like everything else, have entered the commercial age, they retain a mystique. They are still organic, unique, once-living things subject to infinitesimal change in weight and fibre that can make them feel one way one day and one way another.

So when an invitation from Newbery to go down to Hove and try their new bat the Kudos in the nets against a couple of Sussex bowlers came... well. I couldn't get in the car fast enough. As a declaration of interest, the deal was that I could keep the bat in return for blogging about it. And as another, my current bat is a Newbery too, bought with my own hard cash from the same showroom last year. There is a deep connection to bats and batmaking there that I wanted to try, and although I had perhaps my worse season ever, the blade itself was blameless (it was once chucked quite violently into the boot of the car after I was caught off a gentle leading edge - at deep fine leg).

The Kudos comes with a little mystery of its own, each is made by one of three brothers at a location in Sussex that no-one seems keen to reveal (one of the brothers is said to have been an apprentice to John Newbery himself, the others, who knows...?) The bat is handsome and understated, the blade very slightly shorter than usual, allowing the brothers more leeway in keeping the deep swell of its middle while taking weight out. I went for the lightest one in the shop, a hair under 2lbs 7oz, but you'd never guess to look at it. It had a slither of heartwood, too, and nine grains. I've always liked Newbery's handles, slender at the bottom and oval-shaped, and they fit particularly well with this bat. The pick-up is gentle and all of the weight low, which is where you want it on club wickets.

It faced a stern test right away at the indoor school behind the Hove pavilion, where Lewis Hatchett, James Anyon and Steve Magoffin loitered, ready to roll a few down. Young Hatchett bowls left arm over from a tremendous height. Anyon looks as though he's spent the entire winter in the gym. Magoffin watches the first deliveries and leans back on a pile of chairs, knowing that he won't be needed here...

I play the trusty 'haven't batted for two months lads...' card, and am treated gently enough. The Kudos is soon scoring heavily, though, an inside edge from an Anyon inswinger a certain boundary (to much amusement) and although I catch the inevitably short rejoinder high on bat, it flies well into the stands (or is caught at deep square leg, depending on your view - six it was, then).

The middle, on the couple of occasions I found it, is deeply satisfying, the ball staying on the surface of the bat for a fraction of a second longer, its weight biting the willow before cracking off. The notion of the shorter blade might be purely psychological but it's enough for the handle to offer some extra whip. It reminded me of the long-gone expression 'give it some long handle' - there is a nice echo of it here.

Last season I kept a weather eye on the bats that club players actually buy and use. Of the big manufacturers, only Gray Nicolls and Gunn & Moore have any real presence. I see them at every game, but alongside are lots of smaller and boutique makers. My theory is that bats are expensive now and quality and personal service add to the pleasure of choosing and buying one. Newbery, Millichamp & Hall, Salix, Laver & Wood, Chase, Mongoose - all appear more often than (for example) adidas.

Newbery, and others, are a little like ghostwriters sometimes too. In the showroom at Hove was a small huddle of bats for pros, awaiting shipping and stickering with the logos of other manufacturers. It must be slightly heartbreaking to see your work go uncredited, but the provenance of cricket bats remains an oddity of the business, one that adds to the intrigue and the myth that surrounds them.

Will the Kudos join my personal pantheon of greats, retired to Valhalla up in the loft after their sun-filled days of glory? It feels as though it might, but we will see...