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Made in Norfolk: cricket bat craftsman

PUBLISHED: 13:42 25 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:42 25 July 2017

Norfolk cricket bat maker Robert James (photo: Simon Finlay)

Norfolk cricket bat maker Robert James (photo: Simon Finlay)

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Norfolk in summer is the time to hear the sound of leather on willow – and one local bat-maker is making a bit of noise himself

Photo: Simon FinlayPhoto: Simon Finlay

Ever since he was eight years old, Robert Bidle has been batty about cricket.

Now, 20 years on, he is realising his dream as one of a handful of craftsmen around the country who take rough-hewn hunks of willow and shape them into beautiful, hand-made cricket bats.

Robert, who was born in Norwich and grew up in North Walsham, has always been passionate about the quintessential English summer game. “I remember breaking the cat-flap at home going for a run-out when I was eight,” he recalled. He played the game as a youngster and throughout his teens. When he went to Coventry University to study design he also played, but began to see an opportunity to take his love of the game in a different direction.

Photo: Simon FinlayPhoto: Simon Finlay

“I got interested in product design when I was helping a friend,” he said. “I got in touch with a local bat-maker and started to learn things from them. I later applied for an apprenticeship with [bat-makers] Salix in Kent; I didn’t get it but I really got into the idea, going to Lords and looking at the archives and so on.”

He approached some local willow-growers and bought some clefts – the raw, triangular shaped pieces of wood from which a bat is shaped – and began to work on them.

He also contacted master bat-maker Tony Cook at Hunts County Bats in Northamptonshire; Tony had over half a century of experience behind him and the greats of the game who have wielded his bats include West Indian giant Sir Viv Richards, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff and former England women’s captain Charlotte Edwards. He also got in touch with the top man at Gray Nicolls, Chris King, and boutique craftsmen Millichamp & Hall in Somerset. He spent years picking their brains and harvesting their feedback on his work.

Photo: Simon FinlayPhoto: Simon Finlay

“It’s a very secretive thing - makers don’t want to give their secrets away and tell you how to do it all,” said Robert, “but I learned a lot from all of them.

“I was working full-time at Virgin Wines and did bat-making at weekends,” he said. “Eventually my partner, Anna Baldry, said ‘you love making bats so much, why not give it a go?’ So in February 2016 I took the plunge.”

And so Robert James (his middle name) Bats was born and is now thriving from his small workshop near Dereham. “It is going well so far,” he said. “I have made around 100 bats; I’m aiming for around 150 a year. Feedback has been really positive, reputation is really important and so are recommendations.”

Photo: Simon FinlayPhoto: Simon Finlay

Robert makes some stock items which local retailer Pilch sells from its Norwich store but most bats are crafted specifically to customers’ requirements, from weight, balance, where the sweet spot falls and the thickness of the edges and handles. He uses mostly East Anglian-grown willow, personally selecting the clefts after carefully assessing them for splits and knots.

Most clients are local clubmen though some bats have made it as far away as Australia and New Zealand and he has a supportive social media following from antipodean cricket giants Kookaburra.

“I also design my own gloves and pads, which are made for me by a maker who supplies international players,” said Robert. The plan now is to grow his business and work on it full-time. At the moment he holds down an admin job at a media company to help pay the bills.

Who knows; one day he could see an England batsman striding out to the crease carrying a bat with the proud label; Robert James Bats; handcrafted in Norfolk.

How to make a cricket bat

Pick a cleft, a Toblerone-shaped lump of willow, looking at the grain for splits and knots

Take it back to the workshop

Roughly shape it, put curve on the face

Press it 4-20 times to get the right density while checking with mallet and ball

When the blade is ready top and tail it

Cut the v-shaped splice for the handle

Glue the handle in

Cut the shoulders

Cut to length

Plane down the profile

Shape with spoke shave

Plane edges, making sure it is legal width

Sand it down

Shape and bind the handle, put grip on

Sticker it up, oil and sell to a batter who hopefully takes it out and scores a century with it on Saturday

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