Josh Fordham visited the Salix cricket factory in Kent to discuss the changing nature of cricket bat production…
Watching your own cricket bat be shaped and crafted in front of your very eyes is something not every cricketer gets the chance to witness.
But at Salix for the last 25 years you can go along to the workshop and speak to its founder Andrew Kember and choose your wood and have it tailored to the specification you desire.
25 years is a remarkable achievement in itself for someone who does not get involved in sponsoring professional players and relies on reputation and quality of craft alone.
“I never looked forward at the time of starting to make the bats, I remember listening to the chaps I was working with saying ‘I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I’ve been doing it for 30 years’ and thinking goodness that sounds like a long time,” said Andrew.
“There has been enough changes in technology, changes in the way the bats are made to make us feel quite fresh here,” he added.
“If cricket bats had stood still over the last 30 years, and that’s how long I’ve been doing it now, it would have started to wear quite thin. But the game is changing, the way cricketers play the game and the bats are changing along with it.”
You will not find any professional cricketers using Salix bats though and Andrew has very good reasons for holding the best quality bats back for the club cricketers that come through his door.
“We would be making bats for someone else’s stickers to go on them or we go to the bank and spend masses and masses of money for first class players to then use the brand. I don’t see the logic in it and I can’t make the bats fast enough,” said Andrew.
“The idea of all our top wood ending up in first class cricket under other peoples labels doesn’t make sense to me, it needs to be in league cricketers hands.
“If someone comes here wanting to spend £400 on a bat and I have already given all my best wood to first class players it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think it is ethical really.”
The philosophy of treating the club cricketer with utmost respect and giving them that personal service has ensured brand loyalty and a respect for his workmanship.
As a result he is inundated with work and can’t get the bats fast enough. If you go in on a Saturday for a fitting to choose your bat it will take three weeks for it to be ready.
This, in Andrew’s opinion, is what sets Salix apart from their competitors, the fact you can get the desired specifications to suit your style of play.
Andrew said: “We will see people come back season on season, you will see fresh faces and then you will see people who had a bat 5 or 6 years ago and possibly stopped playing or gone to another brand and come back again.
“There aren’t many companies like us, once people have set their heart on a handmade bat there isn’t that much opportunity to do it.
“There are many people able to supply a handmade bat from various sources but the idea of being able to go somewhere and see that bat being made from buying the wood through to the bat being ready for the shop is quite a novelty.
“People can watch the bats being made so they can ask for a particular part of their game then they can have that in the spec of the bat.
“If someone plays on the front foot they might want the wood lower down in the blade, if they play on the backfoot they might want it closer to the hands to cut and pull.
“Then there is people who come in the workshop with no idea what they want and then you have to gauge what is going to be suitable for them.”
Andrew learnt from the much revered and talented John Newbery before taking the leap to going it alone and setting up his own brand, a decision that was instigated by the passing of his mentor.
“I worked for John Newbery from school and he has been recognised as one of the great bat makers.
“He was very good and very talented and installed in me a good work ethic, where handwork linked with good machining work is vital, you can’t make good bats without the good machining processes.
“I also worked for Readers who were planning on making bats but that unfortunately came to nothing.
“Then a short spell at Gray Nicholls working for Readers of all people making Newberry bats. It was an extraordinary situation but that only lasted for a few months.
“John had passed away so if John had been alive I would have stayed working with him but once he had passed away the company changed so really it was right time to start up on my own.”
With the advent of Twenty20 cricket and a shift in focus to power hitting and run scoring has meant that bat making for Andrew has not stayed stagnant and has evolved at the same pace the game has.
“The pressing techniques have changed quite a lot, we have different shaped rollers and different shaped faces and people can look at their own game and work out if they prefer playing on the front foot or back foot.
“The bats have changed, they appear to have changed more than they have in reality, that is clever artwork and flatter faces when we are pressing them.
“There is no doubt that some players have the strength to use bigger bats but a big bat alone is not going to help you score runs faster and hit the ball on the stadium roof.
“You have to be able to wield that bat and be able to get bat speed through the ball. Everyone has got to look at their game but the secret to bats being more powerful is the pressing.”
Despite the significant changes in the game, Andrew sees the need of the correct foundations that he was taught as being the same as when he was learning his craft.
“You cannot make a good bat unless you have really good machining foundations for the product, you then have to have a good quality handle and the handle has to be set properly and once we have brought the blade together with the handle you can then think of the styles, shapes and pickup you are looking for.
“It doesn’t matter how good you handwork is none of it will make an odds if you machining work isn’t very good. We are a small company and we make bats from start to finish and I think that is quite a rarity now.”
From a humble background of growing up on a farm surround by the tools to start making bats it is no surprise that the most joy in the last 25 years has come from teaching others the craft he loves.
“Craftsmanship had been something most of my family had been involved with from will writes with my grandfather and plumbing with my father but also growing up on a farm where all these tools for bat making were around made it easy for me to get started. I was always interested in cricket bats and willow in particular.
“I don’t play so much now, maybe once or twice a season. I don’t miss cricket really, it has always been the craftsmanship that has interested me but I still enjoy watching cricket.
“I think it is no more complicated than when we were starting to employ people we thought could do the job as well for many years it felt like there weren’t enough people with the skills necessary.
“But over the last two or three seasons we have met a handful of people who are confident of making the bats to a high standard in their own rights and they are linked to Ian, Hugh and myself who have all been doing it for a long time and getting the grounding to make the bats well and I’ve taken more pleasure in that than anything else.”
So for the next 25 years the plan is relatively simple, to continue making more and more bats but it is no doubt the game will evolve further over time.
“If everybody is working well then we need to keep making more and more bats we can’t afford to stand still we have to make more bats.
“If we wanted to say we would only make a certain amount of bats we would be found out. The shops that take bats from us in large numbers don’t want to hear we have reached a maximum capacity, they need to know there is more there to put Salix on there website.
“We have got to stay pace with demand, but one thing that won’t change is the work ethic and the way that we approach bat making and if we have to train up more young bat makers then so be it.”