While the World Cup and (notionally) the Ashes reside in Australia’s hands and India remains the game’s political and financial powerhouse, there is one enduring element of cricket in which England remains at the undisputed peak.
However, academics at one of Australia’s top-ranked universities are looking to alter that balance of power by embarking on a research project that aims to unlock the secrets of English willow and bring the fabled bat-making material within the reach of every budding Bradman or Tendulkar.
Australia’s Test vice-captain Brad Haddin lent his expertise to today’s launch of the project that he believes might help strengthen his team’s grip on the urn which is up for grabs once more in the five-match series that begins in the UK in July.
The project, being carried out by physicists at the Canberra-based Australia National University (ANU) Research School for Physics and Engineering, will examine the properties that make English willow the most sought-after and expensive source of cricket bats in the world.
“I’ve just put in an order for a bat for all of our (Australia team) top order, so we should be right for the Ashes,” Haddin said today at ANU, where he played first-grade club cricket as a 16-year-old in 1993.
“We’re going to use science to try to retain those Ashes.
“It is good to be back (at ANU) and it is good to be able to contribute to maybe the perfect cricket bat as well.”
Using highly accurate computer tomography (CT) scanning techniques, the researchers will scrutinise the differences between English willow and the inferior Kashmir variety at a cellular level in an attempt to identify the properties that give the former its unique hybrid of resilience and lightness.
In revealing those characteristics, the team is then hopeful it might be possible to develop an alternative, more cost-competitive rival to the English product that could be grown in commercial quantities in other cricket markets including Australia.
“We would love to find an alternative to English willow which would make top quality bats more accessible for kids in developing countries,” the project’s lead researcher Dr Mohammad Saadatfar said today.
“(But) it’s immensely complex.
“Willow is porous, with criss-crossing fibres that give it the mechanical strength required for withstanding its own weight as well as the wind (in tree form).
“Willow has pockets of air trapped inside the cells, which deform elastically when the cricket ball hits it, giving it unique resilient properties.
“It’s an amazingly beautiful system.”
English willow is becoming increasingly expensive due to dwindling supplies (the best quality wood is sourced from female root stock and takes up to 15 years to produce a commercial tree) and bats made from the highest-grade material can retail in Australia for around $700 or more.
In comparison, more affordable bats made from Indian-grown Kashmir willow are widely regarded to be of inferior standard, have a noticeably heavier ‘pick-up’ and a smaller sweet spot which can result in jarring unless the batter is able to routinely strike the ball with the blade’s dead centre.
Haddin gives this bat the once over // ANU Media
Haddin, who spent 15 minutes in the nets at ANU today to road test bats made from both varieties of willow, was left in no doubt as to which was superior.
“The vibration that went up through the handle, and the sweet spot is so small on a Kashmir bat compared to an English willow,” he said afterwards.
“Part of the conversation we had today is why is it? Is it the climate where the trees are grown, is it the age of the wood?
“That to me was the fascinating bit, to know why.”
English willow producers have long maintained that climate is indeed an integral factor, with the hotter, drier climates of India and Australia resulting in the wood growing too quickly which means it does not achieve the optimum composition of up to 15 grains across the face of a bat.
There are also some who claim that while New Zealand offers similar growing conditions to England, it is prone to more violent weather extremes which results in microscopic tears in the fibres of the wood.
There are others who argue that such assessments serve mainly to maintain the mystique of the English product, and that is one of the answers that the ANU research might be able to provide.
Haddin helped launch the study by sawing in half a bat he used today, and the researchers will subject both bats to scans taken before, during and after stress tests designed to replicate the impact of cricket balls to try and learn what gives the wood its spring and resilience.
The 37-year-old ‘keeper-batsman also impressed the academics with his ability to pick out the qualities of an individual bat based on the sound it made upon contact with the ball, and other insights he was able to provide on the characteristics he looks for in bats that he selects.
Haddin also dismissed suggestions that other advances in bat technology had weighted the game too heavily against bowling teams.
“The first thing (to look for) is the weight of the bat,” he said.
“I like the bat to be a bit bigger than most guys, around 2 (pounds) 10 (ounces).
“I don’t like my bats carved out at the back, I like a nice full cricket bat.
“I like a good ‘ping – a large sweet spot, that’s what I look for.
“And the sound is a big thing, the sound of a bat, and the way it sort of cushions the ball and spits it out.
“I’ve gone back and had a look at a few of the bats I used when I first started.
“They actually feel heavier than they (bats) are now (so) I think the bats are fine.”