“Why doesn’t the shop do this?” my older son asked as we embarked on a week of spending one half-hour per day knocking-in his new bat. As with so many other questions put to me by my kids, it gave me a sense of helplessness and fear that I drift through life accepting too readily what I’m told. I had described what knocking-in achieves: compressing the wood fibres to make the bat stronger; but his question was not why it’s done, but why we, the consumers, are doing it.
Since failing to meet the challenge of his question, these are the thoughts I have had.
Timing, always important in batting, may play a part. The bat should be knocked-in as preparation for its use. A bat bought in the end-of-season sales could go six months before being used. Oiling and knocking-in a new bat months ahead of its first use could leave it dry and not match-ready. Maybe. Even if this is true, it wouldn’t stop the shop offering a professional service when the time is right. Internet sales would present a trickier challenge for the retailer, but that’s a very modern problem, if a problem at all.
Knocking-in is, I believe, an essential stage in the batsman familiarising themself with a new tool. The repetitive striking of ball on bat gives an intimate understanding of where the middle is found, how high up the blade its vibrant heart stretches. Then hammering at the toe reminds the batter how his hands will be jarred if that’s the part of the bat that makes contact with the ball, but also how strong the toe needs to be if a fast, fully pitched delivery is to be repelled. For a young batsman, tapping the bat from middle towards the edge is a visceral reminder of what is sacrificed if the bat is not swung through the vertical plane.
These are general messages picked up from knocking-in. Each bat is different and the close attention of knocking-in will detail the particular nature of the bat owned. Conscientious knocking-in will expose the bat’s weaknesses, where the grain is prone to split. Preventative taping can bolster those spots. Small cracks in the surface can be noted and checked – after a net, after an innings, to see if there is a deeper problem or a spreading vein.
Then, good care of a bat continues long after it is knocked-in. A fine piece of wood can be damaged by leaving it propped against a wall next to a radiator, or lying face down in the dewy grass of a late summer evening. There is a greater chance that, as a result of the investment of hours banging the bat with a ball in a sock, or a bat mallet, the owner would be kept alert to these dangers.
Perhaps knocking-in is just ritual. It does feel incongruous to have to spend so much time and effort before using the new equipment. It belongs to a time when canvas pads and leather boots needed blancoing before the season and prior to big matches. Footballers had to dubbin boots and new footballs needed inflating before they could be used. Christmas used to be a long wait until the presents could be opened and then another wait until they were ready for playing with. Electrical toys needed batteries or to have plugs wired onto them. Nowadays, children’s toys are packaged to leave buttons accessible to little fingers doing shopping to press to hear the sound the toy makes. Bats that can’t be used until they’re oiled and knocked-in are throwbacks. They are symbols of cricket’s difference.
I doubt I have made a compelling case to anyone but the cricket-obsessed. Others probably see my reasoning simply as excuses. While I want my son to continue to ask awkward questions, I hope he hasn’t seen through me on this one. I would dearly like to have created in him an expectation that bats need this attention before they are used; an inheritance of the ritual. For this is what I believe is at stake. I am sure that shops or manufacturers provide high quality willow bats pre-oiled and knocked-in. I just suspect that the batsman who scores runs with a ready-to-use from the shop bat will get less pleasure from the game of cricket than the player who sets aside the time to prepare the bat, to take responsibility for the final stage in its manufacture, before carrying it to the middle.