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The materials from which a cricket bat is made and its size have varied and changed since the shape we recognise today became established in the 1870s. The most significant change in the laws since then came in 1979 when it was stated that blades must be made entirely of wood, following Dennis Lillee’s use of an aluminium bat in a Test match against England.
The blade of the cricket bat has been made from white willow wood (Salix Alba and the closely-related Salix Caerulea, ‘Cricket Bat Willow’) since the nineteenth century on account of its tough, splinter-proof- and lightweight properties. It is grown as a specialist timber crop in Britain, primarily for the production of cricket bats, a very fast-growing, single straight stem tree that thrives in British climatic conditions, including an even temperature, ideal rainfall and favourable soil types. The wood has a low density and compressive strength that enables it to bend, enabling its use for basket-making as well as the manufacture of cricket bats.
Before use, a bat made from Salix Caerulea requires knocking in with a cricket ball or mallet, during which raw linseed oil is applied to the blade. This compacts the soft fibres within the bat to prevent the wood from snapping.
The cane handle attaches to the blade through a tapered splice, developed in the 1880s by a British railway engineer, Charles Richardson.
The first reference to a cricket bat is from 1624, during an inquest into the death of a fielder, whom the batsman had struck on the head to prevent him from catching the ball.
The oldest bat in existence is from 1729 and is on display at the Oval cricket ground.
During the eighteenth century the bat evolved from hockey-stick-shape to one closer in form to those we know today: the logic of this is sound, given that the ball was rolled along the ground by the bowler until underarm ‘length’ bowling - when it became legal for the ball to leave the ground when bowled - was introduced to the laws of the game in 1750.
Appendix B of the Laws of Cricket gives exact specifications for the legal length, width and depth of a bat, first introduced in 1770s. The maximum width of a bat has remained the same since then.
The introduction of round-arm bowling - with the ball bouncing higher when bowled - in the 1820s prompted bat manufacturers to produce lighter bats, with the ‘sweet spot’ higher up the blade, and within ten years the splice had been introduced, connecting the blade with the solid willow, or ash, handle.
In 1835 the length of the bat was limited to thirty eight inches, which remains the same today and the first springs - made from whalebone and replaced by India rubber subsequently - inserted into the handle in 1840.
In 1853 cane was used for the first time in handle making, which developed further in 1864, when cane handles and India rubber grips became standard, and the blade was reduced in weight and its shape altered, as the laws were changed to allow overarm bowling.
In the 1870s the shape of bat which we recognise today was developed and established.
In the 1960s shoulderless bats appeared on the market, the premise being to transfer more of the weight to the sweet spot of the blade whilst retaining good balance and pick- up.
In the 1970s double-sided- and ‘scoop’ bats appeared, the latter with the wood removed from the centre of the rear of the bat, creating a blade that was lighter with a larger sweet spot and better pick-up.
The carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer support that ran down the spine of the bat released in 2005 was withdrawn by the ICC after advice was received from the MCC that it was illegal under Law six.
In the same year bats with carbon fibre handles and a hollow plastic tube running down the inside of the handle, which weighed less than the standard laminated cane and rubber handle, were introduced by a number of manufacturers, which prompted the MCC to change the law on materials in handles such that only 10% of the volume of the handle could be made of materials other than cane.
The advent of T20 cricket has seen the greatest changes in bat design since the 1970s, with a truncated blade and elongated handle, enabling more wood to be placed in the middle, appearing in 2004.
In 2008 and 2009, a bat with an offset edge, creating an extended middle, better swing weight and good balance, and one with a blade reduced in length by one inch, in width to four inches and a handle an inch longer, were introduced and conformed to all the relevant laws of cricket.
Due to modern kiln-drying techniques and manufacturing developments, lighter, bigger bats can be produced and recent MCC Laws have limited their size.
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