Style: Carrying his bat on a changing wicket: Jonathan Glancey meets a man who crafts willow with white-flannel appeal - but adds a touch of innovation

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NEIL LENHAM arrives at Newbery's cricket bat workshop at the start of the season looking like a suntanned bee. Kitted out in near-fluorescent yellow-and- black 'pyjamas', the Sussex batsman personifies the changes that are transforming cricket from a John Major ideal of long shadows, white flannels and leather-on-willow into a parody of bells-and-whistles pin-ball.

The cricket season began this week, but the gentle world of fresh-mown grass, creased old men shunting dazzling white sightscreens, and lazy afternoons in clapboarded pavilions has been giving way, at county and Test level, to the razzmatazz of commerce, corporate sponsorship and television.

Still, the fact that Mr Lenham is at Newbery's suggests that, despite the image that clubs are foisting on them, England's young cricketers remain traditionalists at heart. Well, almost. For although Newbery's Tim Keeley - one of the few remaining bat-makers to do it all by hand - makes some of the most delightfully old-fashioned bats you can buy, he is constantly experimenting with variations on the basic design.

Some of these experimental designs have been banned by the Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB), including one with a built-in handshield designed to protect Mr Lenham's fingers ('I've had five breaks,' says the batsman, holding out a decidedly crooked hand). Others, like the new Multi Balance bat, are an acceptable and clever mixture of tradition and invention.

Most cricketers when buying a bat will select several and test the 'pick-up' or backlift of each to find the one that they feel is most natural and effective. The top of the handle of the otherwise classically elegant Multi Balance unscrews to reveal five 1oz alloy weights. These can be added or removed by individual batsmen to adjust the centre of gravity or 'balance' of the bat. The beauty of this innovation is that the batsman effectively ends up with a tailor-made bat.

Is it really necessary to tinker with the cricket bat? Perhaps, perhaps not; but the fact is that bats have evolved over the centuries and, although the TCCB stipulates the maximum width of a Test or County bat (4 1/4 inches), they can be as light or as heavy, as thick or as tall, as brash or as restrained in their design as individual players want them to be.

In one of the back rooms of Newbery's workshop, housed above an agricultural machinery sales and repair warehouse in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, Tim Keeley displays a collection of bats designed either by himself or by his mentor, John Newbery, a master bat-maker who died in 1989.

Here is a double-sided bat that ultimately impressed no one a few years ago; here are a number of bats with scoops in various shapes and sizes cut out of their backs to reduce weight; here is a 'jumbo' bat with an exceptionally thick blade; and there is a bat - made of willow unstraight and untrue - that David Gower broke in two in 1990.

'We make a range of six basic bats to sell through our dealers, who charge between pounds 75 and pounds 135,' says Mr Keeley, who works with just one other craftsman - Kevin Woodgate. 'But these can be tailored for individuals if they approach us direct at the workshop. We don't advertise; everything is done through word of mouth.

'A good cricket bat is all about weight and balance and a good bit of wood. I like to try out new ideas, such as the Multi Balance, but our latest bat is the Vintage, which is about as restrained and conventional as you can get. It's designed to appeal to the Sunday afternoon cricketer who insists the game is played in white flannels.'

The secret to a good bat is pretty clear when you watch Tim Keeley and Kevin Woodgate at work. No technological novelty can disguise a bat that is not crafted from the finest available timber, which is a piece of willow with a straight grain. 'We grow some of our own butterfly willow on local farms,' says Mr Keeley. 'The rest comes from around the country.'

The ideal time to cut down a willow tree to make a bat is when the tree is 50 inches in circumference: that is, about 15 to 20 years old. The willow is graded one to five in terms of quality, before the 30-inch blades cut from rounds of willow trunk are dipped into hot wax to seal them.

After six to eight weeks of this hot-wax treatment and when the moisture content of the wood is exactly 17 per cent, the rough blades are pressed (at a force of three tons per square inch) to give them resilience. To increase this, batsman are still expected to knock a bat in when it is new and to oil it to keep it supple.

'A good bat will last a county cricketer most of a season,' says Neil Lenham, who hopes to score between 1,000 and 1,500 runs this year.

'Most damage,' adds Mr Keeley, 'is done to bats when players throw them in anger against the walls of the dressing room, rather than on the field. One of our bats will last an amateur years.'

Newbery handles are made of between 16 and 20 pieces of Sarawak cane, split, laminated and glued together with slivers of rubber and cork in between them to act as suspension. The oval-shaped handles ('more natural to hold than than the normal round handle,' says Mr Keeley) are wrapped in Irish linen flax and then wedged tightly into a V-shape cut into the blade of the bat and held in place by a mixture of force and glue.

Newbery handles are very slightly bent ('Again, more natural in feeling,' says Mr Keeley; humans, he agrees, are not composed of straight lines and 90-degree angles).

At this stage, Mr Keeley can still adjust the shape and weight of a bat for an individual player, holding the blade in a vice and reducing its mass with accurate and powerful pulls of a draw- knife that slices as easily through pressed willow as the proverbial knife through butter. The weight of an individual bat might be brought down to as little as 2lb 2oz, although most county and Test players prefer them to be about six ounces heavier than this. The final article is sanded and then burnished to a silky smooth finish with a horse's shin bone.

All that is left now is the application of Newbery's elegant blue-and-black transfer logos; these incorporate a lion, a unicorn and the Sussex coat of arms. The bats are then sold at various outlets in Britain and cricket-playing nations abroad. 'The only country we can't compete in,' says Anthony Byers, who is in charge of sales and marketing at Newbery, 'is India. The Indians make some good bats and, given the cost of labour there, we can't begin to compete.'

The team at Newbery is extremely confident, but how does such a small outfit compete against the big boys: Gunn & Moore, Slazenger, Gray-Nicolls, Stuart Surridge, Duncan Fearnley and Kookaburra?

One answer is that Newbery is selling a hand-made product, so the question is rather like asking how does Morgan, the Malvern-based maker of old-fashioned sports cars, compete with Mazda? In this sense, it doesn't quite: it offers a different type of product. And Newbery's tiny overheads mean that fine, hand- crafted bats can be offered at prices similar to those of the top- of-the-range machine-produced bats made by the big companies.

'We have a staff of just three - Tim, Kevin and myself,' says Mr Byers. 'I think the only other English bats that really compare with ours are those made by Millichamp and Hall in Somerset, and they trained under Tim before setting up on their own.

'Actually,' he adds, 'the bat business is very close-knit. John Newbery designed most of his experimental bats in the Seventies for Gray-Nicolls before setting up on his own in 1981.'

The Multi Balance has been selling well since its launch in February. Despite their tendency towards both crustiness and nostalgia, England's legion of club and village cricketers are obviously not averse to a bit of novelty. They might find Neil Lenham's 'pyjamas' beyond the pale but they cannot resist, it appears, the promise of a bat with perfect balance.

Nevertheless, a visit to Newbery's does suggest that when cricket is played at county and Test levels, nothing beats sheer craftsmanship. Tim Keeley might enjoy reinterpreting the cricket bat, but when you watch him at work with draw-knife and shin bone you know the cricket bat, if not the game itself, is in extremely good hands.

Stockists of Newbery bats include: Lillywhites of Piccadilly Circus, London; Romida in Rochdale and Leeds; Fordham's Surrey Cricket Centre in Kingston upon Thames and Wandsworth; 3D Cricket in Cheltenham; or ring Newbery's on 0580 881104 for your nearest appointed stockist.

(Photograph omitted)