Few things are as quintessentially English as the crack of a leather-clad cricket ball being dispatched though the covers by a bat made of homegrown willow.
But the global expansion of the game, driven by insatiable demand in Asia, has left manufacturers looking for cheaper, more sustainable alternatives to the light-coloured wood of the Salix alba tree.
A team of scientists now believe bamboo may not only be a viable substitute, but in fact a superior material for a bat.
Experiments revealed bamboo bats are stronger, stiffer, lower-cost, more eco-friendly, and have a bigger middle — or sweet spot.
The extra strength means bats could be made thinner and lighter than they are now while still transferring more energy into the ball, allowing for more powerful shots.
Curious scientists from the University of Cambridge worked with bat manufacturers Garrard & Flack and made a full-sized prototype bat from bamboo (pictured) and ran tests
Pictured, Ben Tinkler-Davies, co-author of the research, holds a straight drive pose with his bamboo bat. The bat was built to the same dimensions as a willow blade but was 40 per cent heavier
Bamboo is abundant in its native Asia sand other parts of the world, grows vertically and fast, is the favoured food of pandas, and is an extremely strong plant.
Curious scientists from the University of Cambridge worked with bat manufacturers Garrard & Flack and made a full-sized prototype bat from bamboo and ran tests.
Due to the density of bamboo it was 40 per cent heavier than one made of willow.
But when the researchers analysed its properties and compared it to the more traditional material, they realised bamboo was much more robust than willow.
Dr Darshil Shah and his colleague Ben Tinkler-Davies found bamboo bats, on a like-for-like basis are three times as strong as willow.
As well as the load-bearing bonus, bamboo bats are also 22 per cent stiffer than willow which increases the velocity of the ball once struck.
Bamboo cricket bats would help diminish cricket’s class divide by dramatically reducing the cost of equipment, as willow bats can cost hundreds of pounds because the wood is in short supply and takes 15 years to mature. Pictured, a Salix Alba tree
Bamboo (pictured) is abundant in its native Asia, as well as other parts of the world, grows vertically and fast, is the favoured food of pandas, and is an extremely strong grass
How a bamboo cricket bat was made
In the 19th century, cricket bat makers experimented with various types of wood but from the 1890s, they settled on the sapwood of Salix Alba, a light coloured willow.
It offered high stiffness, low density and visual appeal.
The use of cane in cricket has been limited to bat handles and pads.
Working with local a cricket bat manufacturer Garrard & Flack, the researchers made a full-size bamboo bat prototype.
They first had to split the bamboo into lengths (about 2.5 metres long), plane them flat and then stack, glue and laminate them into solid planks ready to be cut into different sizes.
While this sounds laborious, using laminated bamboo avoids the rolling processes needed to harden willow.
When the team compared the effect of the ‘knock-in’ process on both materials, they found that after 5 hours bamboo’s surface hardness had increased to twice that of pressed willow.
All this, the researchers say, means a bamboo bat could be made thinner and lighter than current willow tools while packing a bigger punch.
In what will be no doubt be music to the ears of batters, but not so much bowlers, the sweet spot on a bamboo bat was also found to be significantly larger than on willow weapons.
The enlarged 2cm x 4cm (0.8 x 1.6 inch) sweet spot, or middle, is also located further down the bat, sitting just 12.5cm (4inches) from the toe.
Vibrations were also similar to the currently used tools, with the new material feeling the same in the hand when striking a ball as the tried-and-tested willow.
Dr Shah, a former member of Thailand’s under-19 national cricket team, said: ‘This is a batsman’s dream.
‘The sweet-spot on a bamboo bat makes it much easier to hit a four off a yorker for starters, but it’s exciting for all kinds of strokes.
‘We’d just need to adjust our technique to make the most of it, and the bat’s design requires a little optimisation too.’
Much has been made in recent months of the reinvention of cricket and its role in an ever-evolving world.
National bodies, such as the ECB and BCCI are actively trying to shed the shackles of their past and reshape the sport simultaneously as an egalitarian hobby and a commercial powerhouse.
The success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in the face of stinging criticism from hard-line traditionalists and the divisive conception of The Hundred are prime examples of the past and present of this historic sport colliding.
Never before has the sport been better positioned to accept what would be a radical change if cricket was to embrace bamboo bats.
But, of all sports, cricket may be the most reluctant to embrace new things.
Live streaming of the county championship has only become widespread this season, and there is vocal opposition to honouring a trailblazing female cricketer, Rachael Heyhoe Flint, at Lord’s, the home of cricket.
In what will be no doubt be music to the ears of batters, but not so much bowlers, the sweet spot on a bamboo bat (pictured left, right) was found to be significantly larger than on willow weapons and nearer the toe, making hitting yorkers for four a realistic possibility
But the main issue facing English cricket is its over-reliance on private schools acting as a feeder system for the county and national teams.
Since the year 2000, 61 per cent of England’s batters have been privately educated, with 27 per cent of bowlers and all-rounders stemming from pay-per-term schools, disproportionately more than the seven per cent of the general population.
Bamboo cricket bats may help diminish this class divide by dramatically reducing the cost of equipment, as willow bats can cost hundreds of pounds because the wood is in short supply and takes 15 years to mature, with a third of all willow grown for bats going to waste.
One of the reasons more batters than bowlers stem from private school is the fact that to bowl, one needs simply a fist-sized spherical object and some open space.
Expert calls for BAMBOO plants to be sold with a warning
Bamboo is a popular garden plant for people living in cities as it grows quickly, is very hardy and provides natural screening from nosy neighbours.
But experts say bamboo is an invasive plant that spreads rapidly and can damage houses, much like the notorious Japanese knotweed.
Shoots of the oriental plant have been found in people’s homes after breaking through from their garden and experts are now calling for it to be sold with a warning to inform members of the public of the risk it poses.
The roots of some varieties of the Asian plant can spread up to 30ft, causing large amounts of damage to nearby homes.
Its destructive ability and durability make it a risky choice for a domestic garden and also make it difficult and expensive to remove.
Pictured, a bamboo planted outside a person’s house and in their garden spread so forcefully that it breached the external walls and then sprouted vertically through the skirting board and up the internal wall
Batting practice, however, requires a bat, protective equipment, and most importantly, someone to bowl or throw a ball.
However, there is no shortage of bamboo. Moso and Guadua, the two most suitable types of bamboo, grow abundantly in China, Southeast Asia and South America.
Moso and Guadua mature twice as fast as willow and because of bamboo’s regimented cellular structure, there is less waste in the bat-making process.
The researchers believe that high performance, low-cost production and increased sustainability could make bamboo bats a legitimate and ethical alternative to willow.
Mr Tinkler-Davies said: ‘Cricket brings you really close to nature, you spend hours out in the field, but I think the sport can do a lot more for the environment by promoting sustainability.
‘We’ve identified a golden opportunity to achieve that while also helping lower income countries to produce bats at lower cost.’
According to the MCC rulebook, the cricketing bible, the only stipulation as to what a bat must be made from is: ‘The blade shall consist solely of wood’.
However, bamboo is a grass, not a wood, a technicality which excludes it from being used and would require a rule change to make wielding one legal.
But Dr Shah believes this alteration would be well within the spirit of the game.
He adds that the iconic sound of bat on ball is very similar whether it comes from willow or bamboo, saying ‘you wouldn’t notice much of a difference’.
‘Tradition is really important but think about how much cricket bats, pads, gloves and helmets have already evolved,’ Dr Shah said.
‘The width and thickness of bats have changed dramatically over the decades.
‘So if we can go back to having thinner blades but made from bamboo, while improving performance, outreach and sustainability, then why not?’
The findings of the paper are published in the Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology.