James Dollive has been making cricket bats for the past 21 years and says he’s never been busier. Chris Bond paid him a visit in Skelmanthorpe.
As you step into James Dollive’s workshop you’re hit by a waft of sawdust and something else, something tantalisingly elusive.
It’s been a cracking summer for cricket fans but today the rain is pummelling the corrugated iron roof with all the ferocity of a Joel Garner bouncer (for those under the age of 30, go and check him out on YouTube).
He set up shop here four years ago – his showroom adjoins his atmospheric workshop covered as it is with wood shavings, while a row of neatly stacked cricket bats stand in the corner dreaming perhaps (if inanimate objects could) of the runs they are yet to score.
James has been making cricket bats for the past 21 years and on his own under his Jedi brand since 2011. Before you start wondering why ‘Jedi’, there is a reason behind it. “It’s my initials ‘James Edward Dollive’ and the ‘i’ because handily it made Jedi. So it’s James Edward Dollive international cricket bats – that’s what it stands for,” he explains.
James lives in Skelmanthorpe, a quiet, unfussy West Yorkshire village and his workshop is just a minute’s drive down the road – the kind of daily commute that makes you green with envy.
Business is thriving and last year he sold 499 bats. “I mentioned that to a friend and he said, ‘you should have told me and I would have bought one.’”
He’s well on course to hit that target this year and he’s happy to keep it at this level – as well as making just shy of 500 bats he repaired a further 900. Not bad for a one-man band.
I say ‘one man’, that is apart from Saturdays when his father pops round to help sweep up. “He’s the perfect employee because he’s free as well,” James says with a chuckle.
During the winter months ahead of a new season he tends to do more repairs. “People get attached to their cricket bats especially if they’re scoring runs with it, but it does reach a point where it’s not worth repairing any more and that’s what I say to them.”
When it comes to cricket, it seems the old adage that a bad workman blames his tools holds true. “It all depends how good you are and where you hit the ball. If you always hit it in the middle then your bat should last until it eventually wears out, but if you’re constantly hitting the ball at the top or bottom, or the edges, then it might not.”
He says with handmade bats it’s easier to spot any weaknesses in the wood that a big machine might not detect.
“With willow you are always battling with blemishes and imperfections, making the bats by hand ensures that you get the very best bat out of each cleft.
“Also when it’s in a natural state willow is really wet, it’s then dried out so we can make cricket bats. So it’s about finding the right piece of wood for the right weight of bat.”
James sources his wood from a willow merchant in Suffolk, though he’s recently planted some of his own trees at Armitage Bridge near Huddersfield. “They take between 12 and 18 years to become mature enough to make cricket bats out of but it’s something I wanted to do as I’d like to be more self-sufficient.”
He makes bats of varying weights and grades. “If someone comes in with a favourite bat they want replicating we can usually turn it around in four to five days depending on workload and get pretty close to the original.”
And he tries to ensure his prices remain at a “reasonable” level. “I’d class myself as a good bat maker but when it comes to being a good salesman I need to polish up a little bit,” he says.
As well as his own bats, he also makes them for 15 other companies and his customers range from regular locals to those from overseas. “I recently sent two to Barbados to a guy involved with the Barbados Cricket Association. I was going to hand deliver them but the missus wouldn’t sanction that,” he says, jokingly.
He’s sent his bats as far afield as Australia and made them for a couple of well known names, including former Pakistan Test match player Younis Khan.
Cricket, he says, is in his blood. “My dad’s always played cricket and I’ve got an older brother who played and I used to, so we’re a cricketing family.”
He enjoyed woodwork at school and did work experience at Ace Cricket Bats in Elland, impressing them enough to be offered a job as an apprentice. “I left school a week after my 16th birthday and did a five year apprenticeship,” he says.
It was here, under the watchful eye of Alf Evans, that he learned the art of bat making. However, in 2005 the firm closed having struggled to contend with the growing number of cheaper imports coming into the UK. “You could get a £50 or £60 bat from India and it killed us off.”
James took an enforced hiatus from bat making, spending a few years working for a joinery firm run by a friend. His heart, though, was still in cricket and few years later he took the plunge and set up his own business.
“By this time the price of imported bats had crept up so it was as expensive to buy an imported one as it was a handmade English one. I felt there was a gap in the market and that’s proven to be the case because of how busy I am.”
He started off in his garage before getting his own premises as demand grew. “The first year I made 25 bats and it’s increased year on year, so 2017 was my biggest year.”
It turns out that Skelmanthorpe is an ideal location for a cricket business. “Within a two mile radius of this shop you need 200 players on a weekend because there’s so many teams. Every village pretty much has a cricket team which is good for me because it’s on my doorstep.”
His customers are happy with his work and James is, too. “I could have probably made more money if I’d stuck with joinery but there’s never a day when I don’t want to come to work, plus you get to meet people from all walks of life.”
He makes cricket bats for both adults and juniors and says the sport is still popular with youngsters. “When I was a kid you played cricket in the summer and rugby or football in the winter. Now, almost any Olympic sport is just half an hour’s drive away. But I still think once you’ve got cricket under your skin that’s it, it’s your life.
“I get nine, ten year-old kids coming in here and their eyes light up when they see the bats… so the magic is still there.”
And it’s at this point that I remember what that elusive fragrance reminds me of – it’s the whiff of nostalgia and the smell of of those warm, seemingly endless, summer days playing cricket as a kid.
To find out more visit www.jedisports.co.uk