In late September 1771 at Laleham Burway, Thomas "Daddy" White of Chertsey walked out to face the bowlers of Hambledon lugging an unusual bat. It was half as wide as it was long - broad enough, once he took guard, to obscure the entire wicket. Perhaps he was being serious, maybe mischievous, even satirical; 250 years on, his precise intent remains misty.
What we do know is that Hambledon and Chertsey met seven days later on Broadhalfpenny Down, and the bat did not appear again - then or ever. That afternoon at Laleham Burway had shown the game a path it should not - could not - contemplate. The match had been a good old dust-up: two days long, with each team putting £50 into a winner-takes-all kitty, and far heavier gambling among the crowd; Hambledon triumphed by "a single notch".
Next day, blood was still high, mostly over Daddy and his bat. The counter-attack was led, naturally, by a bowler, Thomas Brett, "beyond all comparison, the fastest as well as straitest ever known", as John Nyren would describe him half a century later. Brett's letter of protest was endorsed by the signatures of "The General" Richard Nyren - father of John, proprietor of the Bat & Ball Inn and captain of Hambledon - and of John Small, star batsman of the day. (Four years later, Small was rushing Hambledon to victory at the Artillery Ground, this time alongside Daddy White, in a five-a-side game against Kent, when "Lumpy" Stevens got one past his bat, and neatly through the gap between the two stumps. It happened twice more. Lumpy cursed his luck; another new regulation was needed.) Brett's letter consisted of a single, deadly sentence: "In view of the performance of one White of Ryegate on September 23rd that ffour and a quarter inches shall be the breadth forthwith." The word "performance" works as sharply as a stiletto; indignation remains in that misspelled "ffour".
The bat slipped into history, only to reappear as a practical joke. In the heat and fury of the Old Trafford Test against West Indies in 1976, a member of the crowd handed John Edrich a bat as wide as the stumps, while Brian Close looked on. Then, before the 1997 Ashes, the Daily Mirror manufactured a gotcha photograph of the out-of-form Australian captain Mark Taylor next to a metre-wide bat; in the First Test, after 21 innings without a half-century, he made 129.
Meanwhile, The General ordered construction of "an iron frame, of the statute width… kept by the Hambledon club". It was the game's first bat gauge. Four and a quarter inches was written into the 1774 edition of the Laws, and has held fast ever since.
The bat had not long been straight, its form responding to the urges of a game in which underarm bowlers skimmed a "three-quarter length", a new strategy where the ball bounced rather than rolled, and one that demanded to be met. Small had led the way, compiling scores that, by the rickety standards of the 18th century, set him apart. And he was not simply a batsman but a batmaker, literally shaping the future of the game. The weight of the cudgels that came from his workshop in Petersfield, Hampshire, was a daunting 5lb. But Small was, according to John Nyren, "as active as a hare", and noted for wristy strokeplay.
Batsman and bat had begun their symbiotic journey. England offers the damp soil and moderate climate in which salix alba, the white willow, can flourish. Man and willow go back perhaps 10,000 years, when basic tools were fashioned from its tough but pliable wood. Among its cultivars is salix alba caerulea, a supreme piece of natural engineering, its trunk a network of tubes that draw sustenance from root to leaf as efficiently as possible. It grows quickly, over a metre a year, and the fabled grains that run the length of the bat are the growth circles of the tree, each representing a year of life: the closer they are, the slower the growth. Veteran batmakers can pick the hotter summers by the depth of colour in the grain. Other types of willow, and wood with similar density, such as poplar, have been tried. But salix alba is uniquely suited to cricket.
That said, caerulea cuttings sent to Australia grew too quickly in the drier climate, producing a brittle wood. In New Zealand, stronger winds fatally weakened the trees as they matured. From salix alba caerulea grown in England comes every high-grade cricket bat in the world. Small used white willow for his bats but, as batmakers would for the next century or so, he took the dark heartwood from the centre of the cleft - the dead, heavy part of the tree that gave early bats their weight and colour.
A sporting goods firm belonging to Victorian industrialist George Gibson Bussey began using the sapwood from the outer part of the trunk, much lighter in colour and density. It was a leap forward. A slender blade, easier to manipulate, coincided with the revolution in technique brought about by W. G. Grace and the Golden Age. "There was a prevailing idea at the time that, as long as a bowler was straight, a batsman could do nothing against him," said Grace. "That idea I determined to test." Grace sensed the personality of a good bat. When a favourite broke, he wrote to its maker, L. J. Nicolls of Robertsbridge, plaintive over its loss.
Bussey called one model the "Demon Driver". Jack Hobbs sold bats from his shop in Fleet Street embossed with his name. Bill Ponsford christened his beefy blade "Big Bertha". Here were the first hints of a deepening connection between batsman and bat, of an idea that it was not merely a physical tool but a psychological one, too. That notion would take perhaps a century to coalesce, as the bat entered an evolutionary hibernation, a simple form that a good pod-shaver could produce in a couple of hours.
Decades passed: the war-ruined 1940s, the monochrome 1950s, the stolid 1960s. And then it came, the bat's cultural revolution, a decade or so after everyone else. The atom-splitting moment emerged from golf, where new hollow-backed irons were found to be more forgiving to the amateur player than the small clubfaces used by the pros. Arthur Garner, a South African golf club engineer, and his business partner Barrie Wheeler, went to Gray-Nicolls with the idea that a hollow back might also create a larger sweet spot on a cricket bat. John Newbery, a young batmaker, shaped a prototype, while Robert "Swan" Richards expanded the brand in Australia, talking Ian Chappell into using a Scoop during the 1974-75 Ashes. An era began.
The GN100, as the Scoop was officially named, remade the emotional connection between batsman and bat. Its sleek, futuristic design, capped by the idea of painting the hollowed-out part of the spine red, made it an object of desire. Like cars and guitars, the Scoop started to tap its market. New and daring experiments followed. Stuart Surridge came up with the Jumbo, a great shark's fin of extra willow left on its back. Duncan Fearnley made the Magnum, a railway sleeper created to bludgeon bowling into oblivion. Slazenger enhanced the spine to create the V12, which sounded like a missile. The bright flare of Australia's St Peter, with its bold SP logo on a bat whose back was flattened down, burned briefly, and was paired with its trademark mitten gloves; the marketing campaign was led by an almost naked Tony Greig.
These bats fell into the hands of newer, cooler cricketers, who grew their hair, wore sweatbands and gold chains and open shirts, joined Kerry Packer, and played under floodlights in coloured clothes and space-age helmets. A once sepulchral, black-and-white world was alive again. The imperious Vivian Richards spun the Jumbo in his hands as he walked out to bat. Ian Botham swung Fearnley's Magnum, and Viv later joined him. Graham Gooch used both.
The Scoop had generations of swashbuckling acolytes, from the immortal Hampshire opening combo of Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, to Brian Lara, who used it for his 375 and 501 epics. Gray-Nicolls carved a bat with four scoops instead of one; with it, David Gower hit his first ball in Test cricket to the boundary. Newbery, now with his own eponymous marque, invented the Excalibur, with its shoulders shaved away, brandished by the mighty Lance Cairns. Bob Willis adopted Fearnley's offbeat Run Reaper, a bat with tiny holes drilled through, on an aerodynamic whim.
This carnival of innovation reached a mad high point at Perth in 1979-80, when Dennis Lillee hurled his aluminium ComBat across the field after the umpires upheld a complaint from Mike Brearley that it was damaging the ball. More than 200 years after Daddy, Lillee led to another rewriting of the Laws: the bat's blade must be made of wood.
We are now living through a third, perhaps final, revolution. It began in India a few years into the new millennium, when bats began to put on muscle, a reaction to a muscular new game. Batting's greatest technical advance since Grace was urged by short-form cricket, specifically T20's mantra that every ball is an event. Innings such as Chris Gayle's 57-ball 117 at the 2007 World T20, Yuvraj Singh's six sixes off Stuart Broad a week later, and Brendon McCullum's 158 on the first night of the IPL in 2008, opened eyes.
This revolution occurred first in the minds of players who believed new things were possible, even in an ancient game. Once again, the bat responded. Prime willow was pressed more lightly, durability sacrificed for thick, sweeping edges that curved like ellipses, taking weight from the shoulders to pack girth behind the sweet spot. (In 2017, MCC responded to complaints that miscues were flying for six by limiting the edge to 4cm.) Faces were flattened, even concave, to make them appear broader (Daddy White would have smiled). As players glanced down at their bat, they saw something that looked as if it was going to hit the ball a long way. The batmaker Chris King once said, "fast cars look fast", which summed up the new confluence of psychological and physical aggression.
Spectators and commentators were flummoxed at first. "These big, heavy bats" became a way of explaining how hard and far the ball was being hit. Except the bats weren't heavier. If anything, they were lighter: the wood that makes them is less compacted, drier and more voluminous, sprung with the trampolining force that powers the ball from the blade. A good one may last a pro anywhere between 200 and 1,000 runs. A top batsman may once have taken two on a winter tour; now, it may be a dozen. As a physical object, the bat might have been pushed as far as it can go. It works at the maximum efficiency that can be had from a natural substance; unlike golf clubs or tennis racquets, it is constrained by the materials that can be used.
Its future lies in the psychological, in how its look and language make its users feel. Its look may change a little with novel interpretations of old themes. Its language is nothing short of a fecund lingua franca, the bat's size and shape fetishised as deep, sleek, massive. The names of bats are like the names of cars, strange and suggestive: the Recurve, the Uzi, the Finback, the Gladiator, the Colossus, the Mjolnir, the Oblivion Slayer, the Rogue, the Rumpus, the Ghost… They imply not just what the bat is and what it does, but chime with the self-image of its purchaser. The bat in your hand says something about how you play - and possibly even who you are.
Jon Hotten is the author of several books, including Bat, Ball and Field, forthcoming from HarperCollins