Do Grains Really Matter?
There is a famous golfing quote – ‘Drive for Show, Putt for Dough’, the inference being that a big shot off the tee looks impressive however the real winners are determined on the putting green.
Much can be said for cricket bats and the seemingly endless conversation and opinion on why perfectly equidistant and arrow-straight grains are the only acceptable choice when selecting a new bat. Having a bat that has perfectly straight grains, a consistent and even colour completely devoid of natural knots and stains is seen as being an indicator of improved performance (completely ignoring the fact the bat will only do what the batter holding it asks it to do…).
Having read countless online posts and listened to multiple opinions in stores and cricket clubs all of which provide little to no insight into what makes a great cricket bat, we finally reached our BS threshold. To help guide you through the murky world of cricket bat opinion, here is our complete guide to cricket bats and the wood they are made from!
Salix Alba var. Caerulea or more commonly, English Willow. This type of willow is the superior raw material for the production of cricket bats. Why? Well, in essence English Willow is a porous product with a patchwork pattern of fibres that provide mechanical strength. The structural composition of English Willow creates pockets air within the wood fibres which produce resilience and elasticity when struck – this is the ‘ping’ produced by a great bat.
How do we know this (it all sounds a bit made up)? Science. More specifically, the scientific research of the Australian National University and the lead researcher and absolute gentleman, Dr. Mohammad Saadatfar.
Salix Alba var. Caerulea is grown outside of England, throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand and most notably in Kashmir for which Kashmir Willow is named. A common question that arises is that if the variant of willow can be grown outside of England, then what is the obsession with English grown willow?
The simple answer is the growing climate. For willow to grow and develop properly, the optimal growing conditions are around 15 degrees Celsius within a wetter than average climate. Whilst parts of Australia and New Zealand meet this requirement, extreme variations in seasonal conditions compromise the fibrous development of the material which leads to an ultimately substandard material.
For Kashmir willow, the hotter and drier climate of Kashmir creates a speedier growth cycle which results in wood that possesses a denser and more fibrous material with lower grain structure and higher level of moisture retention (which is why Kashmir bats tend to be heavier and unbalanced at pick up).
The eternal question – what is the optimum number of grains? The answer – who cares.
Grains on the face of a cricket bat are indicative of the age of the willow; each grain represents one year of growth. The straightness of the grains is influenced by the rate of growth for which soil quality, available water and growing conditions greatly influence. Typically, bats graded as 2 through to players grade will have 6 + grains of varying width and straightness, with bats graded as 3 and below typically having around 5 grains or less of varying width and straightness.
A proliferation of bats with 15 plus straight grains have recently become available and made quite popular. The reality is that these bats are typically produced from willow grown throughout continental Europe (Serbia is a growing centre for willow production) and are rarely English grown and produced.
Ultimately, a higher-grade bat with a higher number of grains is indicative of a more mature piece of willow and will present well aesthetically, however there isn’t always a correlation between looks and performance. Given the age of the willow in higher graded bats, their lifespan is generally much shorter however their peak performance will be realised faster.
Conversely, a lower graded bat will, over time, play just as well as a higher graded bat and given the relative youth and strength of the willow, a lower graded bat of fewer grains will have a much longer lifespan.
Willow is a natural product and as such, will contain occasional imperfections most of which, will be in no way detrimental to the performance or longevity of your bat.
Pin knots are the most common blemish on cricket bats and are represented by small, dark circular knots typically found on the shoulder and edges of bats. Similar to the pin knot are dark lines that can emerge which are known as Specks. Specks are small cavities that run along grain lines – as with pin knots, specks are purely cosmetic defaults that have no impact on performance or longevity of your bat.
The butterfly stain is final common blemish found on cricket bats and as the name suggests, is a staining of the willow in the shape of a butterfly. It is caused by frost and pruning and essentially scar tissue from this type of damage. Whilst viewed as a defect, the butterfly stain adds strength to the willow and finished bat and will ensure your bat has a longer life span with reduced likelihood of damage and breaking.
Unfortunately, as with grains, marketers have focused on the cleanliness of cricket bats with a desire to present bats with no imperfections or blemishes. This has given rise to a practice of bleaching lower graded willow to hide imperfections and to present these products in a manner which is perceived to be better aesthetically.
At Garrard & Flack Australia, we have a great respect for the raw materials we work with and as such, no bleaching or alteration of our willow takes place. We present each bat as it is, a product formed from a raw natural material, with imperfections and blemishes that create a sense of uniqueness to each bat produced.
Whilst there are a multitude of factors to consider when purchasing a bat (which we promise to address soon in a future blog post!), grains and their relative straightness of width are not and in fact, the entire conversation around grains is completely irrelevant to the performance of your new bat. Importantly, consideration ought to be given to selecting a bat that is produced in England from English grown and produced willow. Equally, we believe purchasing from a manufacturer which supports the sustainable production of willow is quite important (A practice Garrard & Flack Australia adheres to and supports).
Beyond the aesthetic of the product, the cost and expected longevity of your next bat are key considerations, with great value to be found in our grade 2 and 3 bats.
We hope this post has answered some of the questions you have encountered when choosing bats in the past and if nothing else, has provided you with the information you need to confidently select your next bat. Happy shopping and good luck at the crease!