I still want a Gray-Nicolls Elite 500 Limited Edition. This bat was released in 1990 (or was it 1991?) during the height of my “I will bat no. 4 for Australia” phase and without question would have earned me many more runs than my trusty old County Sportsman. I even got to hold one a few times as I investigated spending $350 1991-dollars on a bat which I was sure would last me the rest of my life, Australian career included. It was perfectly-balanced and not big on embellishments: no double scoops, no Dynadrive printed on the back, and best of all, no Kookaburra logo.
I was, and probably still am, a Gray-Nicolls man. But do you remember the cricket equipment landscape back then? We were positively spoiled for choice with the number of brands we had to choose from. Where did they all go? Stuart Surridge? Symonds? Gunn & Moore? Duncan Fearnley?
So far as I can make out, Australians currently use one of four bat manufacturers: Gray-Nicolls, Kookaburra, Slazenger and Puma, of whom the first three have been around for years. But let's go back to my halcyon days of cricket and take a peek at what the Aussies used then – I can still recite them off the top of my head: Taylor (GM), Marsh (G-N), Boon (G-N), Border (DF), Jones (Kookaburra), S. Waugh (GM), Healy (Kookaburra), Hughes (County), May (Kookaburra), McDermott (County) and Reid (Never in the middle long enough for me to notice/care). Within that admittedly small sample, there a minimum of five different bat makes, not counting the Symonds that both Waugh and Taylor broke into the side using, the GABBA that McDermott shifted to, nor the Callan that Dean Jones allegedly had re-stickered to look like a Kooka.
To me, this is another sign of how rigid and commercialised Australian cricket has become. The variety of bats any young player was able to pick up at their local cricket club was startling varied – perhaps the best bat I ever used was a late-70's Wisden blade that I could never find in Nestles' CC coffin again. That the bat you use – be it Puma or even MRF – is a measure of your endorsements is a shame: after the tearaway, personality-fuelled days of the 1970s and '80s suddenly the equipment market has become as bland and predictable as the current one-day game. It was indeed a breath of fresh air when late in his career Steve Waugh removed labels from his bats and came out to bat wielding fresh, naked willow.
The answer as to what happened is predictably simple. Some companies, like Impala, failed. Other companies – Duncan Fearnley and Millichamp & Hall chief among them – chose to downscale and focus on local, hand-made equipment amidst the mass of outsourcing & mass production of bat-making to India. County Sports are now Hunt County Sports after being bought out during a takeover. Stuart Surridge has evolved into Surridge Sports and now focuses priority on jerseys for low-tier English football clubs.
I must admit to being surprised on discovering so many of these famous, grand old batmaking companies are still alive and hitting – on starting this article I expected to find the road to our current hell strewn with the fresh or decomposing corpses of failed and taken over artisan companies. Even St. Peter cricket bats still exist, several years on from the immortal image of Tony Greig clad only in all his cricket protective gear saying “When I go home to face the wife, I make sure I'm protected by St. Peter” (I looked hard so as to share this classic image with you but was ultimately unsuccessful. If you know it, you'll remember it).
Unsurprisingly the almighty dollar is singing it's simple, sad, boring and ultimately melancholy song again. The most marketable players in Australia earn the biggest dollars from the biggest sponsors, leaving craftsmen licking their wounds. And when I next get around to purchasing a cricket bat, it will probably for lack of choice be a Kookaburra. Just typing that made me shudder involuntarily and I can feel the bile rising. Ever since Packer, cricket has changed unforgivingly into a multi-billion dollar business where market share goes to the big fish and only niche markets are left for the artists. Which only goes to show that everything that guys care about – beer, women and sporting equipment – the best stuff isn't made and found easily but takes a lot of sampling and groundwork before you happen upon the one best for you.
We'd love to hear your comments on makes of bats which you remember but don't seem to be around so far. We'll compile a list and revisit this topic during the Australian summer to find out “Where are they now”?