Weep no more, soggy willows are declared out

Geoffrey Lean on the research that could save our cricket bats
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The Independent Online
England's cricket may be in crisis again, following the resounding Test series defeat by Pakistan, but there may be some good news for its batsmen. Scientists will this autumn take the field in a new attempt to save the English cricket bat from a plague that threatens its extinction.

The trees from which the bats are made are under attack from a wilting disease which has been toppling them as rapidly as Mushtaq Ahmed and Wasim Akram ripped through the English middle order on the last day of this summer's Tests. But now scientists have developed disease-free saplings of cricket bat willow, which are to be grown commercially for the first time this autumn.

The new saplings offer hope of finally defeating the bacteria-borne Watermark Disease, which makes the wood of willows heavy and soggy, and thus useless for batting. It turns it from a gentlemanly white to a muddy brown that would surely incur the displeasure of the MCC.

Cricket bat willows are extremely vulnerable to the disease because every one of the more than 100,000 grown in Britain is descended from a single hybrid tree, discovered at the end of the last century to combine the strength, lightness and resilience needed at the crease.

"A really good bat is a work of art," said the great batsman, Prince Ranjitsinhji, at around the time of this discovery. But the earliest ones were probably just shaped branches, while shepherds may have played with old crooks or "criccs". At first, they were curved like hockey sticks, to deal with the bowlers of the age who universally bowled fast underarm "sneaks", running along the ground.

The modern bat began to evolve in the early 1770s as a new fashion in bowling to length, then known as "three-quarter bowling" made the old ones hopelessly outdated. John Small of Petersfield is thought to have made the first straight bat in 1773, and was the foremost exponent of it. Two years earlier, the first size limit was laid down, just two days after one Thomas "Shock" White of Reigate, playing for Hambledon against Chertsey, had advanced to the crease with a bat wider than the wicket . It has remained at a maximum width of four-and-a-quarter inches ever since.

The new bats were often made of red willow, but this changed after the discovery of the hybrid, salix alba caerulae. Cuttings were taken from it and white cricket bat willows have been propagated from tree to tree in this way ever since. More than 90 per cent of the world's bats come from willows grown in Essex and, to a lesser extent, in Suffolk and Bedfordshire.

For years, Essex County Council has been fighting the bacteria. Every spring and summer, council inspectors tour the three counties, looking for the tell-tale red leaves that show the willows are infected, and ordering the growers to fell and burn them. This year, some 200 trees have been destroyed.

This programme has contained the disease, but it would take off again if inspections were stopped or reduced. Cricket bat manufacturers have imposed a levy of 15p on every bat sold in order to finance research into the disease. So far this year, it has raised around pounds 38,000.

For the past year, research at the University of East Anglia has been concentrating on developing what the council calls "100 per cent certified disease-free saplings". Examination of diseased trees shows that even the oldest wood is affected, suggesting that bacteria are spread as the trees are propagated. As a result, the researchers have taken very young buds, believed to be uninfected, as their basic material.

They now have several hundred disease-free saplings in a nursery at the university, and next month experts will meet to decide how to introduce them commercially. They are expected to be planted out at one or two carefully selected willow-growers this winter.

The battle to save the cricket bat has been almost as long and as fraught as the struggle to revive English batting. Three years ago - at about the same time as Ray Illingworth was confidently seeking to rescue the side - scientists at the university said they had the bacteria "on the defensive, if not completely stumped". But, as England has faltered again this summer, the council reports a resurgence of the disease, which it blames on stress caused by the drought of the last two years.

Both the scientists and the county council say it will be 20 years - the time the saplings will take to mature - before they know if the new initiative has been successful. Mike Wortley of the council predicts a "long innings" ahead: "It will not be until then that we will know whether we have been successful," he says.