Start of new club season brings reminders of cricket’s slowly changing landscape

Club cricket has started its season in Europe and, while reconvening with members of my club in southern England, talk turned to what changes we had seen during our time playing the game at club level.

The older members were quick to remark that, when they first played the game, the only person who could be heard to speak on the field of play was the captain and that no one wore protective headgear. How those aspects have changed. In today’s game, even at club level, it seems that everyone has a license to offer encouragement to fellow team members. 

The use of helmets on a widespread basis began in professional cricket in the mid 1970’s, initially with makeshift designs that attracted derision from some spectators and peers. Mandatory use of helmets varies between countries but, in the professional game, all players now wear one when batting or in certain close fielding positions.

This represents a major change, and it is a surprise that it took so long. A cricket ball weighs 5.5 ounces and, at international level, is regularly delivered by bowlers at speeds of 90 mph or more. This has been the case for almost a hundred years, yet it is only in the last 40 years that the use of protective headgear has become commonplace at all levels. Young players grow up wearing helmets when playing, but there is less take-up by older players.

Other changes that were highlighted at club level focused on the growth of limited overs cricket, but it quickly became apparent that there were features that had changed very little. My club is situated in an area of Kent, England, where cricket balls were made as a craft trade. A prime and unchanging requirement is that a cricket ball needs to retain its shape under the threat of being hit many times by a cricket bat. The inner part comprises a core of golf ball size constituted of cork and rubber to which two layers of additional cork are applied before being wrapped in up to five layers of high-quality yarn. A protective plastic cap is applied to reduce the ingress of moisture.

The outer casing is leather, and its quality has an impact on the overall quality of the ball. Prior to being placed around the core, it is massaged, compressed, stretched and treated. Two leather sheets are cut into ovals, each one representing a quarter of a ball. Two sections are stitched together to form a hemisphere. After this, the process varies slightly between the three main manufacturers, in terms of hand or machine stitching, the depth and strength of stitching and seam.

The manufacture of cricket balls is no longer a Kentish cottage industry, as they are now produced in India and Pakistan, with some finishing and quality control of shape, size and bounce taking place in the UK. Yet, the composition, size and weight of the ball remain the same. 

If cricket were invented today, would it use a ball made in the same way? Recent trials have been conducted with vegan cricket balls, which are covered in rubber and are free from animal products. The main issue is that the ball bounces more and is difficult to grip. Its wholesale adoption would seem to be a distant prospect.

We turned out attention to the cricket bat. Historically and traditionally, English white willow has been used, possessing qualities of toughness, lightness and ability to withstand the impact of the ball for a long time without significant splintering or denting. A cane handle, with a rubber grip, is attached to the blade by means of a splice. There have been many — not always legal — variations and experiments with bats to enhance their durability, springiness, shape, weight and power, especially with the advent of power-hitting in T20 cricket. What is incontrovertible are the bat’s dimensions. Law 5 specifies that the length of the bat may be no more than 38 inches in length, no more than 4.25 inches in width, no more than 2.64 inches in overall depth and no more than 1.56 inches at the edges.

Increased demand for bats as cricket has grown in appeal on the Indian subcontinent has led to a major shift in willow sourcing to Northern India and Pakistan. Although willow trees have been a feature of Kashmir’s landscape for centuries, systematic planting did not occur until the late 19th century. Indian bat brands have emerged over the last 40 years, and the market is now highly competitive between the new arrivals, long-established manufacturers (mainly English) and specialist, niche bat-makers. There is traffic between them in willow, in various stages of preparation, leading to a widened range of choice of bat, but the material of choice for bat-making has not changed.  

At a time when the number of English willow trees is thought to be in decline, consideration has been given to alternative materials. A study in 2019 into the performance of bats made out of bamboo revealed a higher strength than willow, which means that the bat can be lighter and thinner. The use of bamboo could drive cricket’s expansion in Asia but there is a major obstacle. Currently, Law 5.3.2 states that “the blade shall consist solely of wood.” Since bamboo is a grass, a change in the laws and much discussion will be required if its use is to be legalized.

The conclusion of our debate was that the fundamentals of the game, in terms of the basic size, composition and shape of both bat and ball, have remained much the same for 200 years. Changes to laws have occurred incrementally and often relate to safety issues. It is the manner of playing that has changed, with a shift toward shorter formats that offer greater appeal to younger people for whom cricket is just one of a number of options available to them when deciding how to allocate their time.