iconimg Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sanjjeev K Samyal, Hindustan Times
Mumbai, May 01, 2013
Gone are the days of Tiger Pataudi who would pick the bat closest to the dressing room door and walk out to face the bowlers. Now is the era of tailor-made bats. The shape, balance, punch and power are all valued very highly. In these customised blades, even the edges are so thick that they can send the ball soaring as if from the middle of the willow.

In Saturday's game against the Royals Challengers Bangalore, Mumbai Indian batsman Dinesh Karthik got a top edge while trying to pull and Jaydev Unadkat watched in disbelief as the ball still sailed comfortably over the ropes.

These days, Aslam of Ashraf Sports Shop, Marine Lines, cannot spare time for a five-minute chat. He's been diagnosed with jaundice but there's no rest.

The T20 league means that Aslam has to meet dozens of orders, fine-tuning the bats of star players. He has been catering to the specifications of Sachin Tendulkar for a long time and since then has become the favourite of many Mumbai and India players.

The stars
It's not just Aslam, the cricket equipment industry this summer is in a mad rush.

“Earlier, the season used to start from September and it would be the peak time for us. With the T20 league, our peak sales hit during summer. In terms of numbers, the business soars by 30 to 40%,” says Paras Anand, director of Sanspareils Greenlands (SG).

Karthik, who's been wielding his blade with punitive effect this season, is among the 30 marquee names sporting the SS TON brand.

“Rohit (Sharma), Dinesh Karthik, Yusuf Pathan, Kumar Sangakkara, Kieron Pollard, Azhar Mahmood, Paul Valthaty, Stuart Binny, Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and Ravindra Jadeja are among the top guns playing with our bats,” says Jatin Sareen of Sareen Sports (SS TON). “Rohit is the most professional of them. We make them with a personal touch.”

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“We have been making bats for Rahul Dravid for 17 years and there has been constant improvement since - from the quality of wood, to the balance to craftsmanship - right across the market,” says Anand, while rolling out the top names playing with his SG blades: Dravid, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virender Sehwag, Robin Uthappa and Gautam Gambhir.

“This time when we gave new bats to Dravid, he was bowled over. 'You never gave me such good bats when I was playing international cricket,' he said. He loved the balance, shape and punch,” says Anand.

Heavy wood
“Everyone wants customised heavier bats for T20, bats that can hit sixes. Pollard wields the heaviest (1400gm). Yusuf also prefers a heavy bat. Other big names on this list are Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Chris Gayle (around 1300gm),” says Anand.

Apart from big hitting, the other reason for the choice of heavier blades Anand feels is the short duration. “Using a heavy bat in Tests and ODIs puts more pressure on the arms and back. But in T20 games you play just 60 to 70 balls.”

Getting a grip
Handles and grip are another fascinating aspect. Vinod Kambli used to have multiple grips on his bat. Asked about the preferences of handles, Sareen says it's mostly to do with the size of the hand.

Bigger the hands, thicker are the handles. “Pollard has very big hands and prefers a very thick handle. Sangakkara has perhaps the smallest hands and hence plays with a thinner handle. The same with Karthik,” says Sareen.

Another batsman who's churning music with his willow, Jadeja, is playing with Ton's new premium range, the same Rohit and Yusuf use.

Myth of the bulge
The other peculiarity of these modern-marvels is the swollen look most of the bats have in the bottom half. It's called the bulge. Does it help power-hitting?

“It's more psychological. Players feel it will help. It doesn't work that way. It's like you feel safer in a four-wheel drive than a two-wheel,” says Sareen.

Bong connection
The T20 heavyweights are known to carry six to eight bats at a time. But, if Sareen is asked to pick one real connoisseur, the name is not on the list of current T20 gladiators.

According to Sareen, the current lot don't compare to a certain Sourav Ganguly's love and understanding of the art of bat-making.

Like a Formula One driver helping his engineers and mechanics in the developing of the car engine, Ganguly would help out his batmakers, says Sareen.

“No one compares to Ganguly. He has great knowledge about cricket bats. He played with my bats from 1996 till he retired and in that period we had some fascinating discussions. He helped a lot in my understanding of the art of bat-making. He taught me how to make a customised bat for top players. He would have around 15 to 25 bats with him at most times, two kit bags full of bats!”

But does it make good business sense, to devote most of your energy catering to a handful of stars in peak season, and all for free? “They are my models,” says Sareen. “It's the best advertisement for my products. The world watches them.”