In issue 28 of The Nightwatchman, James Wallace reflects on the bats that shaped his life.
A Sunday morning in May 1993. I’m five years old and sans plans. My parents have dragged me to a car-boot sale in Bakewell, Derbyshire. Wandering among the bric-a-brac, memorabilia and mid-’90s estate cars with a weapons-grade sulk, I am stopped in my tracks. There it is. Propped up in the boot of a clapped-out, teal-coloured Austin Maestro that belongs to one of the town’s many grizzled elder statesmen. I vaguely recognise him – impossibly old and with huge sideburns. He nods knowingly, but not warmly, at my dad, who is holding my increasingly clammy little paw. “It’s a bit big for you lad.”
The old man has clocked my eyes darting from his sideburns and rheumy eyes to a small cricket bat propped up against a pile of old suitcases. The words “Gunn & Moore Diamond” adorn the top quarter in a pleasing font. The small blade is nut brown, its even-spaced grain running from top to bottom as if a team of highly trained ants has abseiled down its face. It has no grip but this only adds to its allure, with the string-work around the handle precise and taut. My dad hands over £5 and the bat is mine. This is the Damascene moment. Cricket is now my life.
Growing up as the youngest of four brothers, there were a lot of hand-me-downs knocking about and plenty of sharing. Cricket bats were no different. It definitely helps to be the runt of the litter in this scenario. Not only are you exposed to the rigours of the game from an early age and playing against people who are, to misquote Daft Punk, harder, bigger, faster, stronger… older, you are forced to give as good as you get. Or better.
Kevin Pietersen recently stated that the rugby and cricket games he played on his front lawn against his brothers (he is the third of four) growing up in Pietermaritzburg were more competitive than some of the international cricket he played in his career. I’ve never played elite-level sport but the scars, detached retinas and smashed windows of the garden games we had serve to tell a similar tale.
All of this means that I got my hands on proper bats, big-boy bats, from an early age. I had no fear and felt like each time I had bat in hand it was an opportunity to impress. My eldest brother had a Gray-Nicolls Scoop 2000 Brian Lara signature bat. This was the mid-’90s and Lara had recently compiled his epic 375 and 501 not out. Holding that bat you could almost feel the power surging through the willow, up the handle and into your wrists and forearms.
It made you want to play in an attacking way, all high backlift and flamboyant strokeplay. The Ronseal on the garden shed would barely be dry before it was pounded again. Anything loose outside the wicker laundry basket was extravagantly punished. Returning to play with the blue plastic Kwik-Cricket bats and with children my own age, I felt like Lara himself. The plastic felt wrong, all shiny and slippery to the touch. I’d already been having regular hits of the hard stuff, smelling the linseed and wafting the willow and so to go back to the blue-moulded methadone was dispiriting and ego-inflating in equal measure.
Bats are special and we have a deep relationship with them. Whether you’re a club plinkster or slogger, gnarled county pro or international superstar, you will have probably had a favourite in your lifetime. Maybe you have spent your whole life trying to find “the one”? The feel, the pick-up, the grain, the fabled sweet spot, talked about in hushed tones on boundary edges. It does exist, you just have to know where to look.
Bats are the stuff of myth and legend, part of the fabric and folklore of the game. Dennis Lillee chucking his aluminium ComBat away in anger, Sachin Tendulkar polishing the red cherry marks from the edge of his bat to give the impression everything was hit in the middle, or renowned grip-botherer Graham Thorpe endlessly fiddling with his rubbers.
My favourite bat, “the one”, arrived in my mid-to-late teens. I’d held enough handles and studied enough grains to know what I liked and didn’t like. And I knew something special and worth investing in when it came along. I’d lusted over a Gunn & Moore Purist ever since I’d seen Michael Vaughan unfurl his trademark cover drive. That high elbow and precise footwork. Dripping in class. I needed to do whatever was necessary to re-create that shot. The quest for the Purist began.
The first time the Arctic Monkeys played, or even went to Glastonbury, they headlined it. Imagine that. Barely out of their teens. Those four lads from up the road in Sheffield, with their colloquial lyrics and propulsive, frantic rhythms, sound-tracked our adolescence and young adulthood. The first time I batted with the Purist in a league match I made 111 not out. Nelson. That was my Arctic Monkeys at Glastonbury moment. The first one. The big one.
I’ve had other knocks since but none stand out like that. I can remember particular shots, the way the bat felt in my hands, the sound the ball made as it whistled off the face and seemed to go nearly always where I intended. I remember thinking that this doesn’t normally happen. I can remember not taking my helmet off initially as it felt a bit showy but then I succumbed and the moment took over. I also remember who I waved my bat at*.
Last weekend it was my dad’s birthday. A big family do. My seven-year-old nephew wanted to play cricket. Autumn had set in. The air and grass were heavy with damp. He was undeterred. I went up to the attic and there was my Purist leant up against the wall behind the door.
I picked it up. Did a few shadow forward defensives. It felt different. Outdated somehow. A bit of a relic. Heavier than I remembered and with about three too many grips. I placed my fingers around the mangy handle and gave it a gentle squeeze. A forgotten familiarity slowly seeped through me. I can equate it only to the feeling of hearing the opening chords to a once-loved song that you haven’t heard in years. A melancholy-tinged euphoria. I placed it back reverently.
There was no way I was taking that bat out for my nephew to thrash around with. It was far too big for him anyway. I spied an old communal family Slazenger that was still too big for him but would be manageable. Wieldable. It was a better fit. It wasn’t my Purist.
But times have changed. It seems not every batsman has such a deep relationship with their blade. Nowadays bats are softer pressed and increasingly more disposable. Maybe bat idolatry is found only in the amateur player, the dreamer, the romantic, and there isn’t time for such woolly guff in the modern professional game. You only have to look at a twelfth man gambolling on with armfuls of bats for a lower-order batsman in a Test match. The batsman inspects them briefly before selecting one with barely more than a glance and a nod. Harry Potter’s Elder Wand or King Arthur’s Excalibur it ain’t.
Bats are a tool, used to hit the ball and “make” runs with. But they also serve as a conduit. Like a guitarist who swears by a Fender Telecaster but knows deep down that the music is the only thing that really matters. Bats carry our weekend hopes and childhood dreams. They can be blamed for our failures, lusted after in their absence, and mourned, but they are a willow vein to the beating heart – cricket. Cricket is the constant. Bats have come and gone but my love for cricket won’t ever splinter, bow or break. Here then is my life in bats.
Age 5: Gunn & Moore Diamond, size 4
The first love. The gateway bat. It was used for garden or back-lane cricket, or occasionally French cricket if space and time were limited. The Diamond was a dominator of the tennis ball and was not to be used with anything harder than a windy ball for fear of damage to both itself and the neighbour’s property. They don’t make them like this anymore, certainly not for a fiver.
If I close my eyes I can still smell the linseed oil and hear the sound of my brothers’ bickering. Just for the record: YOU CAN BE OUT FIRST BALL. Also, if you hit the ball over the fence into the next-door garden then you should go and retrieve it. Don’t send your little brother every single time.
Age 10: Slazenger V800 Panther, size Harrow
I still don’t know why there is a size of a bat named after a posh school. Cricket, eh? The local club received a load of kit from the Lord’s Taverners and it was absolute mayhem in the pavilion that day. The kindly gent who ran things, Gerald, let me take a V800 home. I’m still not sure of the arrangement we had. I suspect I was supposed to take it back at some point and never did. I was known as “one-shot Wallace” for this entire period, favouring a leg-side hoick to every single ball, and this bat was with me during a phase of fierce competitive cockiness.
The nadir was a friendly practice game down the local park in which I tried my customary swipe to leg and top-edged one into the nose of the wicket-keeper. These were pre-helmet days. I insisted on carrying on with the game even though it was clear to everyone else that urgent medical attention was required – a 12-year-old boy with a ginger afro was pawing at the earth trying to locate his broken face. We eventually came to the compromise that the emergency services could be called as long as I could pick up where I left off the following week. If memory serves, I converted the 12 not out into a dashing 30, despite all the distractions. Great bat. Horrid boy.
Age 14: Hunts County Glory, size Harrow
I shared this bat with my brother; he saved up to pay for it – he has always been thriftier than me. I lent him my Gray-Nicolls gloves that I had ordered from the Morrant Sports catalogue that Christmas and that was the arrangement we had. Later, a pair of Kookaburra batting shorts became part of the deal too. I never felt like a Hunts County man. It was very much my brother’s choice and I just went along with it because I was 14 and penniless. The sight of the stag on the front sticker was a bit like when you go into a pub and see a beer badge with a warlock or goblin on it alongside some olde worlde font and you think it’s all a bit too much really and order a Guinness.
I also remember it feeling reedy and thin. A little poncey maybe, like the posh boys who used to get a new Newbery bat each summer and every other piece of kit with the same brand. Looking like they were sponsored. Even though they were 14 and rubbish. I did score my first competitive fifty with this bat, albeit in a match that was played on the school multi-sports pitch with a boundary made up of luminous cones and leftover quoits. At least three boys from our side were playing in their school uniform, complete with lost-property trainers.
Age 17: Gunn & Moore Purist (original), size Long Handle
The first proper bat that was all mine. “The one.” Like a Telecaster or E-type Jaguar, the old Purist was a classic. Note the “original”, meaning the willow was of a higher grade. So was the price. The burgundy handle was like something out of a Farrow & Ball catalogue and the classic Gunn & Moore design tapped into those feelings I had when I first held the Diamond over a decade previously. I honed my Vaughan-esque cover-driving with this bat. Admittedly the opposition bowling was less Brett Lee at 90mph at the MCG and more middle-aged-dobber with a sizeable gut at a backwater ground in the Yorkshire and Derbyshire League third division.
I felt at one with the Purist and used it well past its prime. All the other players at the club and among the opposition gradually started using new-fangled bats with names like “Beast” and “Destroyer”. These bats had massive, thick edges like four pieces of white sliced bread stuck together. They were undoubtedly lighter and had a sweet spot twice the size of my trusty and increasingly scuffed blade.
I clung on loyally to my Purist and duck-taped it, oiled it, even got a new toe grafted onto it after digging out one too many yorkers, until finally it snapped in two during an innings, the handle bursting through and taking half of the blade with it.. I had it mended even though I knew it would never be fit for use in a match again. Grief does funny things. Like the bereaved animal-lover who deals with the loss of a pet by seeking solace in taxidermy and getting their spaniel stuffed into a pouffe, the Purist is still in my parents’ attic.
Age 24: Slazenger something or other, size Long Handle
Some bloke at the local club knew a bloke who knew a bloke who worked for Slazenger as a rep. The bloke at the local club came in one Saturday flustered and excitable, saying that his contact had somehow acquired all the bats that were rejected by Slazenger poster boys such as Jacques Kallis and Ian Bell, and that us muggles could own these “rejects” for a cut-down price. Most of the team dutifully and probably gullibly signed up and handed over wads of cash. A few weeks later the Slazenger hoard landed. Me and my brother shared custody (he paid) of a brand-new Slazenger bat.
We convinced ourselves it was one that just missed out on selection by Kallis. Not quite good enough for South Africa’s pre-eminent all-rounder was good enough for us, especially as it cost little more than a post-match round in the pub. Yet to be knocked in, with a huge bow and incredible lightness and feel to it. We didn’t like the garish stickers all over it so peeled them off and removed the clear protective sheath too. Once fitted with a yellow grip, it looked just like the bat that Steve Waugh used in the 2001 Ashes. The anonymous destroyer.
That was my last bat. It broke in an indoor net at The Oval last year and I cycled home with it on my handlebars, swathed in a bag for life. I remember thinking of the film E.T. as I pedalled by moonlight up Kennington Lane while balancing my swaddled willow corpse. I had to get it “home”.
It remains behind the bedroom door, my girlfriend eyeing it suspiciously, especially when the wind blows a certain way and a waft of linseed fills the room. One day I’ll pluck up the strength to re-cycle it or put it out with the bins. One day.
*Andrew was there when I scored my first century. Of course he was. He was always there. Andrew, my brother. The runs were for you. And so is this.
This article appears in issue 28 of The Nightwatchman. Available in print and digital editions.
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