Why willow? The magic wood and English monopoly

Edward L'Orange Roar Guru

By Edward L'Orange, Edward L'Orange is a Roar Guru

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    As a cricket tragic, the timber used to make cricket bats has always fascinated me. Why willow?

    Of all the plants in the world (there are over 60,000 species of tree), why is only one very specific timber used to make bats?

    The timber in question comes from a single cultivar of the English White Willow, known as the cricket-bat willow, or Salix alba var. caerulea

    All the best cricket bats in the world are made from this tree. At least, they are considered the best if the timber is cultivated and harvested in Britain. England has a surprising monopoly when it comes to producing cricket bats.

    There is another place from which we get cricket-bat timber: the Kashmir region of India, which produces what is known as Kashmir willow. This is, in fact, the same Salix alba caerulea found in Britain, but grown in India

    The tree was first propagated in India in the 1920s, and has since become an important product of the region. However, the timber grown in the sub-continent is more fibrous and thus denser than English willow, meaning the bats are generally considered to be inferior.

    If you or your kids have a cheap cricket bat, it’s likely made from Kashmiri willow; any serious cricketer goes for English willow. It has better grain density and structure, leading to less vibrations and a larger sweet spot.

    But what of other woods? Well, in general, few other timbers seem to have ever been used in the construction of cricket bats.

    Local woods are sometimes used at the amateur level, particularly on the subcontinent, and poplar has been attempted in Europe, but with limited success. There have also been some suggestion that a bat could be made with compressed bamboo or cain, but this has yet to be successfully attempted. Suspicion is that it may be too heavy.

    What is it about willow? Well there are certain, seemingly unique, features of English willow that make it ideal for cricket bats.

    It is fast growing (around 15 years to harvest), with a medium grain. It is soft, but very durable, reacts remarkably well to impact, and is very resistant to splitting and tearing. Perhaps most importantly, it does all this while being incredibly light.

    A first-of-its kind study, done by the Australian National University, has actually sought to put all this in scientific terms. The lead researcher, Dr. Mohammad Saadatfar, speaks about the specific characteristics of willow which make it ideal.

    “It is porous, with criss-crossing fibres that give it mechanical strength… [it] has pockets of air trapped inside the cells, which deform elastically when the cricket ball hits, giving it unique resilient properties.”

    The purpose of this study was to find a cheap replacement timber for use in cricket bats, but, as of yet, the results are nowhere to be found.

    Before we go on, you may be thinking: what about materials besides wood? Well, there is one famous example of a non-wooden cricket bat: Dennis Lillee’s aluminium ‘ComBat’ used the 1979 series against England.

    Lasting just four balls, and one hit, the umpires told Lillee to abandon the bat following a complaint from the English captain Mike Brearley. Brearley asserted that it had damaged the ball: an assertion later to be proved false.

    Perhaps more important was the claim that it was “against the spirit of the game”. Well, the English have always claimed the monopoly on that, and the Marylebone Cricket Club (our spiritual leaders) were prompt. They advised the ICC to revise the laws of cricket so that a bat could only be made of timber: law 6.4(b).

    Another law of note is law 6.7(a). This law stipulates that the hardness and surface texture of any bat shall not be so hard to “cause unacceptable damage to the ball.” Presumable this includes aluminium, but, I wonder, what else? If someone was to come out with a bat of another timber, would it be judged “too hard” to be used?

    Effectively, these law changes, and the generally better quality of English willow, mean that the only material used by serious cricketers is English-grown cricket-bat willow. Of course, as populations grow and demand for this product increases, we are left with the only possible conclusion: strained supply and increased cost.

    In fact, English willow stocks seem to be struggling.

    West Indies’ Chris Gayle raises his bat

    (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

    The strain is such that J.S. Wright and Sons Ltd, the provider of 90 per cent of the world’s English willow, is now offering to purchase timber from any private individuals who might have trees on their land, just to keep up with the demand.

    With the supplies struggling, and other materials out of the question, surely, we must look at the ‘English grown’ part?

    Well, we know that Kashmiri willow is generally inferior. With a much warmer and drier climate, the trees grow faster, meaning less grain density, and have higher moisture retention, making them heavier.

    If warm and dry climates result in poorer willow, this would probably discount many, if not most, regions of Australia. But, interestingly, growing cricket-bat willow in Australia is actually something of a lost practice.

    In the earlier half of last century, Australian grown willow was in fact not rare. Famously started by ex-Australian Umpire Bob Crockett, the R.M. Crockett label made bats from timber grown on his Victorian farm in Shepherds Flats. However, in 1956, British sporting giant Slazenger bought out the company, and English hegemony was established.

    Since then, very little cricket-bat willow has been produced in Australia, and the industry has essentially died.

    In attempt to rectify this, the cricket-bat willow project, with its many star proponents, was established. However, it has so far had limited success to say the least, seemingly because of poor growing locations. A quick search of the project online will tell you all you need to know.

    But success may be much harder to come by than anyone expected, as demand for Australian willow seems to be non-existent. One possible reason it that it is common for English willow growers to dismiss the quality of all other wood.

    Steve Smith scores his second Ashes hundred

    AFP PHOTO / GREG WOOD

    Backed by the relatively poor quality of Kashmiri willow, they say that Australia is too hot and dry to grow good willow. To grow properly, they claim, it needs a wet climate with an average temperature of around 15 degrees.

    When pointed out that Australia does indeed have some places that meet these demands, and New Zealand has more, they claim that violent weather extremes can cause minute tears in the timber, making an ultimately inferior product.

    This I cannot believe, and I suspect it is simply English bat suppliers wishing to maintain a monopoly.

    Australian bat maker Lachlan Fisher, who has used both English and Australian willow to craft bats, claims that the best Australia grows is as good as any specifically selected English willow.

    So the question begs to be asked, in a climate of increased demand, and English monopoly, why are we as Australians not doing more to supply our own demands for cricket bats? What a moment it would be for an Australian Test cricketer to walk out with a home grown bat.

    If you have a few spare acres, a good climate, and some time, chuck in some willow. We need it.

    In the the meantime, however, I am fascinated by the monopoly of willow. It is simply a lack of trying with other woods? I am keen to hear any success stories out there about bats made from other timbers.

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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • September 12th 2017 @ 1:11pm
      Arcturus said | September 12th 2017 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

      It’s funny how woods get earmarked as “the best”, to the exclusion of (most) others. Baseball bats (the wooden ones anyway) are made from ash, axe handles from hickory and violin bows from Pernambaco. Most of this seems to stem from tradition rather than science, but it doesn’t mean these woods aren’t the best at their particular function.

      The last bat I purchased came from a visit to Kashmir. The roadside stall would happily put on any sticker you wanted – Slazenger, Nike, Adidas, you name it he had them all. The bat lasted a lot of backyard innings before the handle broke, more a consequence of being left out in all sorts of weather.

      • Roar Guru

        September 12th 2017 @ 1:21pm
        Edward L'Orange said | September 12th 2017 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

        I admit that is my instinct too, re: tradition. There must be another wood somewhere with similar enough properties, but tradition and an idea of “what the game is” keeps us tied to willow. For better or worse.

      • Roar Rookie

        September 13th 2017 @ 10:38am
        Lancey5times said | September 13th 2017 @ 10:38am | ! Report

        Whilst reading this article I was waiting for information on baseball bats to come up. If ash is what is being used and knowing absolutely nothing about baseball, surely this can’t be a completely bogus wood for a cricket bat. Is it weight that is an issue? Seems like you can smack a ball a long way with this substance

        • Roar Guru

          September 13th 2017 @ 11:59am
          Edward L'Orange said | September 13th 2017 @ 11:59am | ! Report

          It’s a good point, and I was planning to mention it, but just didn’t find the space. As I understand it, you’re right in thinking that it’s mostly a weight thing. The other thing is that grain in ash isn’t usually as straight, perhaps meaning the bat is less durable.

          Essentially, I suspect an ash bat might not last as long as willow, but he harder, which isn’t always a bad thing.

          For example, the heartwood of willow is a bit harder, but more brittle. Some people actually prefer this, as you don’t have to knock the bat in much, and can just go out and hit from the start. However, this comes with the fact that it will last fewer number matches. I think ash would be similar to this.

          I actually think regular old builders pine would be ok.

          • Roar Guru

            September 13th 2017 @ 12:35pm
            Rellum said | September 13th 2017 @ 12:35pm | ! Report

            Baseball bats break a lot.

    • September 12th 2017 @ 4:40pm
      DavSA said | September 12th 2017 @ 4:40pm | ! Report

      I can assume the same in Australia as here in South Africa that their is a massive price diffs between the two competing Willows . In fact with the on going strong pound and our weak currency , most school cricketers will only play with a Kashmir Bat . Few parents are willing to fork out large sums on a bat that may break the first day used. There also like AUS certain regions in SA , specifically The Knysna , George areas in the South East Cape that could surely support Willow Growth.

      • Roar Guru

        September 12th 2017 @ 6:21pm
        Edward L'Orange said | September 12th 2017 @ 6:21pm | ! Report

        You’re absolutely right Dave, English-willow bats are not cheap in Australia. You can spend over $500 on a good bat, and usually at least $350. Kashmir willow only cost around $70 for a decent bat.

        I’m sure there are a real number of places in the cricketing world that could easily grow quality willow, if only the market could adjust.

        • Columnist

          September 12th 2017 @ 6:55pm
          Ronan O'Connell said | September 12th 2017 @ 6:55pm | ! Report

          Bats are a lot cheaper in the UK, particularly at the moment with the Pound way down against the dollar.

          I’ve seen bats which are going for $600 at main cricket shops in Australia which can be got for as cheap as $300 in the UK at the moment.

          I bought a Slazenger bat from the UK last year that was reduced from $600 to $250. Although to be honest I still prefer my New Balance, which I paid full price for in Aus.

          • September 12th 2017 @ 8:23pm
            DavSA said | September 12th 2017 @ 8:23pm | ! Report

            At $600 Ronan that is roughly R5000.00 . Twice the average monthly income . You can buy a decent house with that kind of monthly bond repayment. The quality of a bat or the size of the sweet spot is also determined by its construction. I would rather play with a top end Kashmir willow than an entry level English one which comes at the same price.

    • September 12th 2017 @ 10:52pm
      Hoi Poloi said | September 12th 2017 @ 10:52pm | ! Report

      Fascinating article.

      There was a story on Landline about willow growing in Australia for cricket bats. Would have been a few years back if memory serves.

      Never got my Greg Chappell ‘scoop’ bat.

      • Roar Guru

        September 13th 2017 @ 7:33am
        Edward L'Orange said | September 13th 2017 @ 7:33am | ! Report

        I’d be interested to see that actually; I imagine it’s about the Cricket-Bat Willow Project. It’s had such issues with promises to star investors, and just hasn’t delivered as of yet.

        Apparently where they are growing the timber at Wood-Wood in Victoria is too dry and hot to make excellent quality timber.

        • September 13th 2017 @ 1:22pm
          Timmuh said | September 13th 2017 @ 1:22pm | ! Report

          Maybe somewhere on the NW coast of Tas would be good. Cool, damp, but if near enough to the coastline not too prone to frosts. And, by Australian standards, good soils for most products. Wind might be a problem though.

          • Roar Guru

            September 13th 2017 @ 1:38pm
            Edward L'Orange said | September 13th 2017 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

            I was thinking Tasmania would be the go, or some places in Victoria. Frost isn’t too much of an issue for willow, so should be fine in the cold, just needs water. I actually think New Zealand would be ideal.

            • Roar Rookie

              September 13th 2017 @ 2:55pm
              Lancey5times said | September 13th 2017 @ 2:55pm | ! Report

              Tasmania may be ideal but it would be great if we could grow the willow in Australia instead 😉

    • Roar Guru

      September 13th 2017 @ 12:28pm
      Rellum said | September 13th 2017 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

      The shortage of Willow is the reason behind the crazy bat prices now I have been told. $1200 for a top of the line G&M is crazy. Prices have quadrupled in 20 years.

      I don’t think it is just tradition that makes English willow the pick. It is also superstition, favoritism and ofcourse that it is the best wood for a bat. I am sure most grade cricketers aren’t going to use an inferior bat. You would need to put in some real effort with independent reviews to convince everyone a new wood is a good or better.

      • Roar Guru

        September 13th 2017 @ 1:11pm
        Edward L'Orange said | September 13th 2017 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

        Even willow from another countries would take similar effort, I think Rellum. I would go so far to say that, from a marketing point of view, to be successful it would take an English test cricketer publicly stating that the bat is as good as English willow. Still, we can dream. A home grown bat industry would be great for cricket in Australia.

        • Roar Guru

          September 13th 2017 @ 3:57pm
          Rellum said | September 13th 2017 @ 3:57pm | ! Report

          You would need to sign a senior member of the Aus test team as a marketing strategy.

    • Roar Guru

      September 13th 2017 @ 8:00pm
      Rellum said | September 13th 2017 @ 8:00pm | ! Report

      I would love to know if Grade 2 English Willow is indeed twice as good as Grade 3 willow, which it is seems to be the claim based on the price. Same again to upgrade to grade one.

      • Roar Guru

        September 13th 2017 @ 8:16pm
        Edward L'Orange said | September 13th 2017 @ 8:16pm | ! Report

        I’ve actually heard tell that if you are paying for anything under grade three, the best Kashmir willow is just as good.

        • Roar Guru

          September 13th 2017 @ 8:26pm
          Rellum said | September 13th 2017 @ 8:26pm | ! Report

          But you don’t really get bats graded less than 3. I am looking at a new bat now and I am only looking at grade 3 as that price range is all I am willing to spend, I might grab a grade two and one when I am picking to see if they ping any better. I would hope so.

    • September 14th 2017 @ 12:04pm
      James said | September 14th 2017 @ 12:04pm | ! Report

      I think the biggest argument against that aluminium bat is the sound it makes when it hits the ball.

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