Howzat: As the new cricket season gets underway, Chris Berry meets a man who’s handcrafted a career out of leather on willow.
Growing up in Yorkshire there are few more essential requirements in a boy’s sporting armoury than balls of the football, rugby and tennis variety… and a cricket bat.
Nick Nixon is one of the relatively few small independent cricket bat manufacturers in Yorkshire. He was born in Nawton near Helmsley, son of a joiner, and still lives there but his workshop and sales emporium, which features a kettle and tin of biscuits, is based in The Smithy at the top end of Malton Livestock Market. It doesn’t stand out in any way, but during the past 20 years Nick has built a solid reputation for the quality of his bats and repairing others. He started his working life in quite different surroundings more akin to his neighbours at the market.
“I’d worked on farms from leaving school until I was in my late 30s, but I’d always played cricket and had been fascinated by cricket bats and how they were made. When I was given the job of buying balls and other equipment for my home club Nawton Grange I started repairing a few bats and, with the contacts I made with some of the manufacturers who had retail sides to their businesses, I managed to get over to see what they were doing. I went to Crown Sports, run by Colin Easton; Ace Bats in Elland, where I met a great bat maker called Alf Evans; and Peter Kippax in Leeds.
“Visiting them put the idea in my head that I could manufacture really good bats on my own. I knew the machines I would need and how I was going to run the business, my only concern was whether there would be enough trade here as it has a much lower population density than, say, the York-Leeds-Harrogate area, but I like Malton, it’s a great town and I sell quite a few bats.
“The first one I made was for a fabulous batsman called Dave Greenlay. He plays at Harome but at the time he was at Scarborough. Dave was and still is one hell of a cricketer and it’s a travesty that he never played for Yorkshire. He’s one who definitely slipped through the net, as is the current Scarborough CC captain Andy Simpson, for whom I’ve also made a bat.
“I manufacture every bat from here. I have some of my own willow trees but as they take between 15-20 years to grow to a harvesting length, I buy about 90 per cent of what I use from East Anglia. English willow (salix alba caerulea) has been grown specifically for the purpose of making cricket bats for many years and is known for being a tough, strong timber that is light in weight. It’s sometimes known as blue willow.
“You usually get around 30-40 bats from each tree although the record is 270. The willow merchants split, saw and dry the willow that arrives here as a cleft.”
From that piece of timber Nick cuts, planes and presses before adding the handle made from manau cane. He then shapes, sands, waxes and buffs finally stringing the handle, applying the grip and the Nixon decals.
“Every bat is different and there are fashions that come along. Everyone now seems to want a bowed bat, one with a curve. I make those to my own style. I have three main lines. What I am most concerned about is making bats to last. I have lads who have bats of mine that are as old as when I first started in the business, but at the end of the day it’s a lump of wood and it can break no matter who has made it.”
Batsmen from village teams to international test match players talk of a bat’s sweet spot, the place where if you connect with the ball correctly it will fly away to the boundary. Sweet spots differ with the thickness of the blade. Nick tries to makes his bats with as long a ‘middle’ as he can.
“There’s quite a lot of misinformation about sweet spots. The Aussies seem obsessed with it. They play more off the back foot than we do because of their wickets but you don’t want a high sweet spot as a general rule. It doesn’t work.
“It’s the weight of bat that there’s probably more emphasis on these days than length of handle. I really don’t mind what it is that people are going for so long as any change is for the better. There are a lot of bats that I see that have been built to fail and if you’re a county cricketer that’s okay because you’ll get 20-30 bats every season, but when someone buys a bat to play for their village team that’s different.
“People tend to like lots of grains on their bats. I’ve just had an Indian-made bat brought in and it has 20. I’m not worried what it has so long as the bat is made properly but I don’t like to see more than a dozen or less than six. An old rule whether you are making a cricket bat, gatepost, chair or boat is the less the grains, the stronger the wood.”
Nick has made bats for Collis King, Viv Richards and Shivnarine Chanderpaul but doesn’t make a big deal about about it.
“I don’t think Chanderpaul will even have known he was playing with a bat made by me. It was when he was top of the world rankings and he wanted one with a super short handle and a specific weight of 2lb 15oz, almost identical to one I’d made for Alvin Kallicharran. It was a lovely lump of willow, and had a big brown stain that stood out every time he played with it. He was contracted so he couldn’t have it branded with Nixon. Collis played with one of my bats for 10 years and scored many of his 50 centuries with it in the York Senior League and yes, I also made one for the great Viv Richards.”
Of greater pride to Nick are the bats he makes for cricketers of all ages around Yorkshire and the North East.
“I think I’ve improved the performance of some players, especially young ones. I’ve seen lads hit the ball cleanly, right out of what is supposed to be the sweet spot only to see their effort rewarded with the ball tootling along the floor and not even getting off the square. When I look at the bat they are holding I immediately know why, and when they get the lump of wood I’ve made into a cricket bat I’ve seen their reaction when they’ve connected and how far the ball has gone.
“I made one for a young lad called Finlay Bean who scored a century with it for Yorkshire U11s last season. He’s the first lad to do that for the county at that age. I used to race motocross against his dad.
“Some of the kids’ bats on the market are absolutely shocking. It’s very difficult to buy a decent one but I treat every bat the same. If you buy a bat or a pair of pads or gloves from me you’re going to get the same quality as the men’s bats, pads and gloves.”
Many larger manufacturers now refer to their bats as “pre-knocked in”, giving the impression that the new owner has no work to do other than going out into the middle and connecting with the ball. Nick doesn’t subscribe to this approach.
“My bats go out au naturel. I think it’s a good thing for kids if they have to oil and knock-in their bats. It teaches them to look after it. Ideally bats should be bought at the back-end of the year, they should be oiled and then knocked-in about Christmas time. The longer the bat is knocked-in and the better it is looked after the longer it will last.”
In reality with the new season nearly on top of us and all the fresh enthusiasm and vigour that goes with it nearly every club cricketer of any age is currently assessing their kit, equipment and wallet to decide on new purchases.
Nick’s order book multiplies quickly about now, as does the rest of the industry.
“Between now and the end of May is my busiest time. Everyone gears up for the season ahead. That also includes repairs but I tend to get a lot of bats in for repair at the end of the season. If a bat is split up the grain then it can be repaired, but if the grain is severed you’ve no chance.”
When Nick worked for farmer Henry Threadgold at Sleightholmdale he enjoyed the beauty of the countryside and working with livestock. His favourite animals were the pigs. It’s appropriate that his advice to a young club cricketer bringing a bat in for repair, not a Nixon bat, should contain a reference to them.
“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I’m amazed at the lack of quality in some bats. I can’t compete on price with the thousands that are imported every year but I can make something that will last and will perform – in the right hands.”