Charting Inventiveness in Cricket Bats

Introduction

In some spare time a few years back I began to compile a record of patents relating to cricket bats. I now have a near definitive record for all patents published. Analysis of this data threw up a number of trends and notions around the inventiveness and capacity to invent in cricket playing nations. Some of these are instinctive, and some are revealing.

Bear in mind that this is a brief analysis of patents published. It does not include ideas and inventions or otherwise that were never patented, of which there must be many. The data provided here shows how human invention reveals itself in cricket bats, and I make a connection to their countries of origin. Not being a historian or social scientist I will leave more detailed interpretations and analysis to those with the knowledge to do so. I hope that any who do have this knowledge will share it and improve my own historical knowledge around cricket and creativity.

In total there has been (at least) 107 cricket bat related patents published since 1884. On-line records show 100 patents going back as far as 1894. An additional 7 have been found through research that date from 1884 to 1891. There may be a few more published patents hidden in the archives, although this is unlikely to be more than a handful.

The analysis of cricket bat patents

Figure 1 below illustrates the frequency of patents applied or published by decades, and split between ideas for improvements in handles and blades.

Figure 1. Frequency of patents by decades, split between ideas for improvements in handles and blades

There are some interesting observations in the data. Handle related patents were the most frequent before the Second World War; at which point there was an understandable absence of patents while a large part of the world were preventing dictators from taking over said world. Around five years of post-war austerity and re-building kept minds away from play. Then patents started to appear again as humanity re-discovered leisure, and a spark of inventiveness occurred through a renaissance of life in the 1950’s. From this point onwards there is a reverse in the bias towards more blade related patents. This is probably explained by the application of new materials such as polymers and alloys, and attempts to apply these to improving performance of blades.

The rules of cricket up to 1980 had no restriction on materials for blade or handle, and this led to many variations on the composite and lamination theme.

In 1954 John Lewis of the Rubber Improvement Company patented the first idea for a plastic bat to be made in a mould (Figure 2 below). He referred to using hard-setting resins that could be reinforced with glass, nylon or cotton, and the cavity filled with cork, wood, sponge or ‘like-filling’ substance.

Figure 2. 1954 patent by John Lewis of the Rubber Inprovement Company

There’s nothing like covering your options, as all good patents should. All previous composite ideas were either wood combinations or variants on using rubber sheets or layers. Aside from the creation of a spliced cane handle, the earliest patent recorded for a novel laminate (or composite) bat was around 1887 by the Cobbett Cricket Bat Factory. The idea is best described as a cricket bat having an ash frame with a cork playing surface reinforced with cat gut.

A modern example of striving to use new materials is a patent by Michael Curtis (no relation) of Dunlop’s in 1993, who were then the owners of Slazenger and producer of Slazenger cricket bats. He proposed a predominantly plastic bat that had a willow insert for the striking surface (Figure 3 below).

Figure 3. 1993 patent by Micahel Curtis of Dunlop

The interesting thing here is that a previous law change in 1980 banned any non-wood materials in the blade. So why did Dunlop go to the effort and expense of patenting something that can’t be used? It is not un-typical of inventors to patent ideas even in the light of conditions that would prevent it becoming an immediate commercial success. Dunlop’s probably thought that one day the rules may change back in favour of non-wood materials, and had the cash to spend on a speculative patent. However, the rules have been tightened ever since, and it’s only an event such as willow supplies drying that would force the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) to consider a change to Law 6 covering the blade.

I then took the data in Figure 1 and replaced the blade/handle differential with the countries that published the patents. Figures 4 and 5 show the UK as the most prolific (with 88), followed some way back by Australia (13), whilst India (1), South Africa(3) and Canada (2) showing no more than a few patents each.

Figure 4. Frequency of cricket bat patents per country by decade

Figure 5. Total number of cricket bat patents published per country

The UK’s dominant productivity in patents is entirely expected given its industrial heritage, population size, and a strong culture for both cricket and invention. Up to around 1970 the UK had a complete monopoly on the global supply of cricket bats.

Perhaps a more balanced comparison is one where population size is taken into account. Figure 6 moderates the data by dividing patent number by population size, with a multiplier to create a sensible magnitude we get what I call a patent-population index. I’ve taken the mean population using 1900 and 2010 data. The main observation to draw from this is that Australia performs much better when population size is taken into account. Again this is not unexpected given Australia’s cricket heritage and rising industrialisation during the 20th century.

Figure 6. Total number of cricket bat patents per country, moderated by population size

Although no complete surprise it is certainly interesting to note that all patents published outside of the UK are former dominions of the British Empire, where quite naturally the sport of cricket was spread as part of the great ‘imperial cultural exchange’. Canada is an exception to the others as a major cricket playing nation.

Australia’s most memorable and infamous patent is the one taken out by Graham Monaghan and Dennis Lillee for an aluminium bat in 1979, which forced a rule change by the MCC. It was only meant as a low cost bat to make cricket accessible in poorer countries, but Lillee couldn’t resist the publicity stunt of using it in an Ashes test match (see Video 1).

Video 1 Dennis Lillee using his infamous aluminium bat in Perth 1979

Final Word

Dennis Lillee could never have predicted the impact of his action on the subsequent constraints placed on cricket bat design. In fact, there have been two major amendments to Law 6 (The Bat) in the last 30 years – one in 1980 and another in 2008 – where previously there had been no change since 1809. Both changes were related to bat advancements that were patented, and that have coincided with the rapid advancement in material technologies over this period.

If technological advancement continues unabated then, despite the restrictions of the current laws, it is inevitable that another invention in the next 20 years will cause a further rule change.

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