West Row cricket bat makers Garrad & Flack use locally grown willow for their new Suffolk Select range
- Credit: Archant
With the cricket season due to start next month, players will be stepping up net practice and assessing their equipment requirements for the coming summer.
Those keen to follow the principle of buying locally might want to consider a bat made by a company called Garrard & Flack. The business based at West Row, northwest of Bury St Edmunds, has launched a range of cricket bats called Suffolk Select – not only are they produced in the county but the wood is also sourced from a willow tree from Cornard Riverside near Sudbury in Suffolk.
When it comes to cricket bats, it doesn’t get more local than that.
The company plans to make around 50 bats for the range this season - each with a burgundy-coloured grip in Suffolk colours and all handcrafted by business owners Ed Garrard and Liam Flack.
The pair started the business around 24 months ago, and in its first full year in 2017 sold around 200 bats mostly to local players but also to a number of retailers, including Mr Cricket in Burwell just over the border in Cambridgeshire.
In the last two years, around 30 bats have also been exported abroad to Australia and South Africa where they have been purchased by individuals who have found out about the company online.
Talking to Ed is an education for someone like me, who hasn’t really given much thought to how cricket bats are made and had assumed that all bats were pretty much the same.
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I learn that Cricket Bat Willow has been used to make cricket bats for over a century. It is both fast growing and straight, as well as tough and lightweight and has to be dried before it can be formed into a cricket bat. Traditionally, it took 12 months to air dry but today willow can also be prepared using a de-humidifying kiln in less than 12 weeks.
Every bat the pair produce is pretty much custom-made and I soon find out there are a great many options you can offer customers – from the length and style of the bat to how it is balanced.
The grain structure of the wood is also key – a piece of wood that has a straight grain, evenly spaced with few blemishes is the most sought after. Cricket connoisseurs will also tell you that it is preferable to have mostly flexible soft wood in your bat rather than the harder heartwood that tends to be more brittle – and increases the chances of the bat breaking.
I also learn about ‘knocking in’ - a crucial process in preparing a bat for play. Ed recommends owners spend up to half an hour rounding the edge of a new bat off with a mallet in order to compress the edges which will help avoid small compression cracks developing over time.
“We tend to say there are around 1,500 to 2,000 runs in a bat before it starts to die-off a little bit, said Ed.
“Some people say that’s two good seasons but it depends how much you practice and whether you are a big hitter.”
Working from an initial ‘cleft’ of willow, Ed and Liam use machinery to carve out the basic bat shape before they turn to the hand tools – the block planes, spoke shaves, draw knives - which enable them to customise the bat and give it the appropriate balance.
Ed says he loves the final stage when he is sanding the bat.
“When you are working it down from a rough surface to a smoothed finish, it is very satisfying,” he added.
Away from the workshop, both Liam and Ed play for Lakenheath Cricket Club and both use bats they have created. Notable players to wield a Garrard & Flack bat include Ben Shepperson, a Mildenhall cricketer who bats No. 3 for Suffolk and was one of the highest run scorers in the Minor Counties Championship last season.
Given the beautiful bats he creates, it comes as a surprise to hear that Ed is practically self-taught.
He continued: “I’ve always wanted to make cricket bats. I used to hang around my dad’s workshop and any time there was a bit of wood around, a bit of old pine or whatever, I used to try and make it into a bat.
“Then I asked around a few bat makers and got a few pieces of willow and had a go and got some positive feedback and we took it from there.
“I’ve learnt a lot off YouTube - watching videos and then looking up information from the internet. Other bat makers have been helpful and have given me a few tips – they don’t tend to be too competitive. I have a good relationship with the Norfolk Cricket Bat Company and we share wood deliveries.”
Back south of the border, Ed says that while he knows of a few cricket bat brands in Suffolk that import finished bats from India – the epicentre of the cricket bat making world - as far as he is aware there are no other companies in Suffolk that actually make bats.
While not all the willow Garrard & Flack uses hails from Suffolk terrain - only that which is used for the Suffolk Select range is grown in the county - the duo would like to use more wood from their home county, even if it means waiting a while.
Ed added: “It would be nice if we could guarantee that every piece of wood was from Suffolk – that would be the ideal. But because much of the Cricket Bat Willow grown here goes to India where there is the greatest demand, there tends to be a shortage of willow for English bat makers.
“We are quite rural out this way and have a number of farming friends so we might look to plant a few ourselves if we can. They do grow quite quickly, so we will be able to cut them down in 13 years or so.”