In October 2008 the Marylebone Cricket Club changed Law 6 of the Laws of Cricket. Law 6 concerns the bat, what it’s made from, how its made and even how it can be repaired if damaged. Two innovations in bat manufacture sparked this rare reaction from the MCC, these laws aren’t changed very often. Since the first codified rules were written in 1744, the chronology of changes affecting the bat is, 1774 (first rule for the bat), 1809, 1979, and 2008.
In this latest episode, the first innovation was the colourful (or glaring) glass-fibre sheet covering the back of the Kookaburra bats launched in December 2004. The second is the carbon-fibre composite bat handles produced by Newbery, Puma, and Gray Nicolls from 2006. These bats were rendered illegal by the rule-change, a move which might have served to protect the spirit and balance of the game had a new Mongoose bat not appeared in 2008 and been declared legal. I’ll explain.
In 2004 Kookaburra glued a thin sheet of glass-fibre across the back of their bat, printed some colourful branding and called it a ‘sticker’. Its thickness of approx 0.40mm was a superficial covering that intuitively should add no performance benefit to the bat.
Its thickness was certainly far less than the 1.56mm allowed within the rules for ‘coverings’. Off the back of what appeared to be protests from other bat makers that it contravened the rules, the MCC investigated. Kookaburra put up independent expert evidence that the covering did not improve bat performance, but was intended to increase bat life through prevention of cracks. The MCC said it did improve performance, quoting its own independent expert opinion. It stated that the glass-fibre sheet modified the bat vibration properties, and therefore improved performance. They subsequently ruled the bats illegal under Law 6.2 (2000 code – 2nd edition 2003) relating to covering material, which stated that it “shall not be likely to cause unacceptable damage to the ball”. So it seems more of a supposition by the MCC that the material (on the back of the blade) will cause an increase in performance of the bat, which will then damage the ball. Kookaburra withdrew their bats under much protest and threat of possible legal action. I think they had a point.
I have a 2005 Kookaburra ‘Beast’ in my possession. With a little close inspection, and based on the work we have undertaken on bat vibration, my opinion would sit with Kookaburras. I also reference a research paper called ‘The effect of microstructure on the impact dynamics of a cricket bat’ by Grant and Nixon. The paper reports that “if the density and elastic modulus of a beam could be uniformly increased by a common factor, then the weight and flexural stiffness of the beam would increase in proportion.” The research was looking at the effect of the pressed layer on the face of the bat. The conclusion that I draw is that a performance increase from the glass-fibre covering might only come from placing it on the face of the bat, not the back. It seems the MCC decided that a principle had to be established on new materials, and interpreted their own rule in a way that suited a new agenda to protect the balance of play.
Then, in 2006, along came the carbon-fibre composite handle, with Newbery (the original patent holder), and Puma offering up a product. Gray Nicolls followed in 2007 with the Fusion. The MCC were clearly nervous of the direction some of the manufacturers were taking. The principle concern was that new materials were increasing bat performance and giving the batsmen too much advantage. Action was required to maintain the traditions and spirit of the game. I don’t disagree with that stance, or the manner in which it was dealt with, but I challenge the conclusions being drawn.
Taking advice from engineering researchers at Imperial College, the MCC was offered two options. The first was to impose a bat performance measure, and a test that all bats must undertake, similar to that used for baseball bats in the USA. The second was to limit performance through material constraints. The former would initially be onerous and complex to govern, the latter very simple to initiate and govern. Simple won the day. Law 6 was changed and a 3rd edition of the 2000 code was published in 2008. While this is practical, I believe it is not in the best interests of the game, removing incentives and scope for the manufacturers to bring novelty and excitement to the game through new bat designs. There is one thing in creating a challenging environment for innovation, it is another to constrain it so tightly that all interest is lost.
And then along came the Mongoose MMi3 cricket bat in 2008. It is unconventional, inspired by Twenty 20, and approved by the MCC. However, in the right hands at the right time this bat can give a significant advantage to the batsmen. Now correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that the main reason why the MCC changed Law 6? There appears to be an inconsistency in the application of the laws by the MCC. I doubt I’m the only one to notice this, and would hope that some tidying up takes place. As it stands though, the latest change to Law 6 is likely to prevent any innovation of interest in cricket bats for the foreseeable future. What is there left to do, genetically engineer willow trees to create ‘super-willow’?
What effect has all this had on the consumer cricketer? They’ve been exposed to the exciting possibilities of real innovation in cricket bats, and not just minor technical tweaks or design gimmickry. Then they’ve had them taken away. Will it leave a slight sour note around the game? Are the MCC spoil sports? Does the image of the sport portrayed stack-up against other sports vying for our attention? In many ways it does, but not in the primary tool for batsmen – the most visible and potent tool in the game. Compared to other sports, cricket has become anachronistic in its control of the bat laws.