A Bat Maker’s Story - article from author Charles Wood and extract from his upcoming book entitled Bats, Pads and Gladiators - A Miscellany of Gloucestershire Cricket.
When the spring sun shines, mention ‘Hunts’ in Gloucester and it’s likely neither the Beaufort nor the Vale of the White Horse is on your mind. Instead, you’re probably cogitating about cricket bats.
The old Moreland Match Factory may have closed in 1976, but to say anything made there today amidst the lathes, mallets, grinders, chisels and sawdust is no better than ‘matchwood’ would be downright insulting. Yet, not wishing to sound finickity, to the naïve a cricket bat is just that.
Martin Berrill promises to put such ideas well and truly straight by making some of the finest examples of cricket bat in the country. To his mind there’s willow and there’s … well, willow. Although, when I caught up with him at an inopportune moment he must have wished he were less of a bat maker and more of an octopus.
He was trawling through the inboxes of two computers trying to find an email whilst having to tackle three simultaneous phone conversations. One sounded like blue murder. ‘Stick it on the chest!’ he ordered. And his words into another mouthpiece were anything other than reassuring. ‘No, not you, Tracy. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m free. Probably in six months.’ And into the third, ‘I can’t see any evidence. When did you say you sent it? …. Can I get back to you? I’ve a shop full of people baying for me.’
The last point I quite understood. It was a Friday morning and, with the weather set fair, Martin had customers to satisfy. In this he’s often likened to Mr Ollivander, the Diagon Alley wand maker in Harry Potter. Bat choosing is a process of elimination. Martin remembers every bat he’s ever sold. Every single one. Trial bats in the shop often pile up like Jenga as the perfect match between bat and bod is sought.
‘All my bats are guaranteed to make a century every innings,’ he told me before chuckling, ‘ I can’t guarantee the individual holding it.’ Never was a truer word spoken in jest. With one of Martin’s bats in their hands, Courtney Walsh and New Zealand’s Danny Morrison vied with one another for the most number of international ducks. It’s something that still makes Martin wince.
Happily he’s proud to say Charlotte Edwards, the captain of England Women’s cricket, is currently one of his more adept clients. Other names tripped off his tongue as if reciting an academy of fame – Rod Marsh, Imran Khan and David Gower. After uttering ‘Monty Panesar’ Martin gave a sudden nervous cough. This I learned was nothing to do with Monty’s batting prowess. Rather it was a demand to Martin to pay him ‘a large sum of money’ for the privilege of using a Hunts bat. I remarked I’d check on Monty’s current blade at the earliest opportunity.
As for himself, Martin, now in his very early 50s had retired his own cricket gear into a squinch for spiders somewhere at the back of his garage. However, it doesn’t seem too long ago since he was playing in the Stroud League for King’s Stanley whose Marling Close ground was once fraternized by film stars. Here Roy Bassett stumped both Kenneth Moore and Basil Rathbone. And here Martin scored centuries with a bat that he’d lovingly crafted himself after moving to Gloucester in 1986. By then he had nine years of bat making experience behind him.
His first year in the trade had been marvelous. He’d delighted in both Geoffrey Boycott and John Edrich scoring their respective hundredth hundred wielding the Hunts County bats he’d helped to make while working in St Neots beside the Great Ouse river in Cambridgeshire. They were idyllic days.
Back then Hunts grew their own willow trees. Drawn into nostalgia Martin was proud to have made a bat from one and used it to score a century. Until the custom died with the ‘70s the company’s willows were actually grown on an island in the middle of the Great Ouse and, when chopped, the logs had to be floated downriver to the point of collection.
‘Didn’t that make the bats a bit damp,’ I asked, thinking of the corkscrew hazel in a dark dank corner of my garden and ahead of Martin explaining that Hunts religiously dried their timber in stacks slowly over a period of time, swopping top for bottom three or four times a year. It was this process that taught him to grade a chunk of willow.
Also, one can accurately say he can ‘read’ a cricket bat. The difference between English and Kashmir willow disgusts him. The latter wood is whiter and the grain prouder, and not in a good sense. For to make a blade smooth requires the job of grinding, not gentle sanding. Those wanting to know about performance, it’s the difference between ‘ping’ and ‘clunk’.
My confiding to having bought a Hero Honda for a quid off the internet only to feed the bloody thing to an autumn bonfire after a single innings of two balls ended by middling a gentle full toss limply to mid-on rather proved Martin’s point.
And he bemoans the influx of other cheap subcontinent cricket merchandise, too. Under his desk is a box of about thirty half balls that he’s sawn in two. ‘The rubbish they put inside has to be seen to be believed,’ he said getting his gander up. ‘There’s scrunched up silver paper and everything. The balls don’t just go out of shape, they go biscuit flat.’
To Martin, the makeup of a cricket ball touches a nerve in him. Between 1981 and 1985 he was hand stitching them in Australia. Four years of bruised and needle impaled fingers was enough for him. Although he vehemently disagreed with me that it must have been ‘convict work’, he thought it much better sticking to making bats.
And in our changing times he has achieved this with aplomb in Gloucester. Despite being forced to source his English willow from the Essex wholesalers AS Wright he reckons he’s one in a small minority of only ten or fifteen master craftsman bat makers remaining in England. He can’t get apprentices to carry on tradition for love nor money. Young people want to work with computers instead of with their hands, he maintains. So long may Martin continue to be the stoic.
With his staff becoming increasingly agitated I left this octopus man of declining breed to his admiring customers and his Jenga, hoping at the same time he’d avoid committing blue murder. Mr Ollivander, indeed.
Now, what if he could just grow himself a Whomping Willow, I thought. That would make cricketing weekends around Gloucester and beyond sublime.
Extrach from Bats, Pads and Gladiators - A Miscellany of Gloucestershire Cricket published with the kind permission of Charles Wood - Original extract here
ISBN: 978085704169 - Publish date October 2012
Footnote - Please pay special attention to the logo on the cricket bat in the picture from the book. Hunts County Bats immortalised forever perhaps?