David Warner middles the ball

The sweet spot is generally defined as the point on the bat where it imparts the maximum accelaration to the ball with minimal jarring

© Getty Images


Have sweet spots on bats really got bigger?

Batmaking trends have changed greatly in the last two decades, but perhaps not as much as batting trends

Varun Shetty  |  

"And, you know what, the ball's still going to go the same distance."

That was David Warner in 2017, as the MCC was deliberating on bat sizes. Warner's Gray-Nicolls bat at the time, aptly named Kaboom, was an object of focus: it was reportedly 85mm deep at the point on its back where the spine was furthest from the face, and the edges were at least 50mm thick, probably closer to 60mm.

Warner's wasn't the only big bat going around at the time, but it was the most conspicuous.

"The time has come to restrict the size of bat edges and the overall width [thickness] of bats," said Mike Brearley, chairman of the MCC committee when they came up with the proposals to restrict bat dimensions. "It was pointed out to us that, in 1905, the width of bats [edges] was 16mm and that, by 1980, it had increased to 18mm. It is now an average, in professional cricket, of 35-40mm and sometimes up to 60mm. That shows how fast the change has been."

The laws that were eventually passed - and used to date - limited bat edges to 40mm, and maximum thickness to 67mm.

The one area of the bat that could not - and cannot - be legislated was the sweet spot. And Warner was right. The ball did go the same distance after the restrictions were put in place, and did so with increasing frequency. Commentators sometimes talk about "bigger sweet spots" on the modern bat as a reason why. But is that really the case?

The simplest description of the sweet spot is that it is the point on the bat from which the ball rebounds with maximum acceleration and minimal vibration in the batter's hands. A consequence of bats getting bigger is more wood at the edges, which means miscued shots don't cause as much turning and vibration in the hands as they used to, while still carrying a fair distance. So in a notional sense, commentators are right when they say sweet spots have got bigger - at least from a bowler's lens, they have reduced the margin for error. But from a technical point of view, there can only be one "best" part of the bat.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"There's no way you get a bigger sweet spot out of a bat," says James Laver, batmaker and founder of Laver & Wood. The physics of a bat don't let you achieve that. A bat can get only a certain sized sweet spot."

In exploring the physics of a bat, we must first address the shape. Bats have evolved to become more curved, with pronounced swells on the back in comparison to the flatter shapes we saw until the late 1990s. That means there is more wood in them, and the easy assumption to make would be that the part of the bat that corresponds with the swell, the part with the most wood, is the sweet spot - but batmakers say this isn't always the case. The swell acts as a kind of counterweight, it determines how easy or difficult it is to pick up the bat, rather than how hard it hits.

"The sweet spot is the centre of percussion, which is about 150-160mm from the toe up," says Lachlan Dinger, a batmaker for Kookaburra who works with Marnus Labuschagne, Glenn Maxwell, and Alyssa Healy among others. "So just as an example - if we made a bat and we distributed all the willow to the toe, we're still not going to get the ball pinging off the toe. Because that's the end of the lever, if you want to call it that. And if we moved all the willow closer to the hands, it's not going to mean that the ball is going to ping off the splice where the handle gets fitted in. Because of the distance from your hands."

If you think of the bat as a lever, the position of the sweet spot is more dependent on the length of the bat than the thickness. With the length of the bat standardised at a maximum of 965mm, the centre of percussion can't really move. "What we do change now is the swell and the weight distribution, and that affects the way that it swings and the way that it looks," says Dinger.

Simply increasing the amount of wood on a bat wouldn't necessarily make the bat better, or help the batter hit the ball harder or longer. Viv Richards' bat weighed just over 1100gm (2lb 7oz); Warner's infamous bat, despite its chunkiness, was measured at around 1190gm (2lb 10oz). Yet it's fair to say these two batters are among the hardest hitters cricket has known, despite having distinctly different bat shapes.

Barry Richards compares the bat he made 356 with at the WACA in 1970 with David Warner's

Barry Richards compares the bat he made 356 with at the WACA in 1970 with David Warner's "Kaboom" in 2015 Ryan Pierse / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

If anything, bigger bats have mainly meant a psychological advantage. You are more likely to intimidate a bowler or believe in your ability to clear the boundary with a bigger bat. Liam Livingstone recently told ESPNcricinfo that "you want to be able to look down at your bat and have confidence in being able to clear long-on, who is 80 yards away". But clearing the boundary is still dependent on a batter's preparation for big-hitting, and batters are more prepared in the contemporary game. Most professional batters have extensive training regimes, heavily tilted towards optimising bat swing.

"[We must] understand the biomechanics and the swing dynamics," says Shannon Young, a Level 3 Cricket Australia accredited coach based in Melbourne. "The age-old argument is, if we gave Barry Richards David Warner's bat now, or if Bradman had batted with a [modern] bat now, he'd have more than five [six] sixes in his career, all that sort of stuff. I don't think so. For me, your dynamics are your dynamics."

Young works closely with Kookaburra alongside Chris Hall, a bat-fitter - bat-fitters customise bats for players - and founder of Cricket World Moorabbin, a retail company in Melbourne. Young and Hall are co-founders of Cricket Performance Lab, based in Melbourne, and have adopted a metric called the Balance Point Index (BPI) in bat-fitting.

"BPI was invented for baseball so that you could differentiate between bats and start to solve why a player hits well with a certain bat and not with another," says Hall. "The actual mass of the bat, the actual weight, there was no relevance to how someone would perform. So the BPI was invented to basically differentiate that and give a metric to the pick-up and feel, as we would call in cricket."

The lower the swell is located on a bat, the higher the BPI - or the more force it takes to start moving a bat. Maxwell, for instance, has a BPI of 87, which is on the higher end of the scale and implies a harder-hitting bat. During research, Hall tested his own performance as a batter and found that the higher the BPI, the worse his performance got. Bat size, he found, doesn't have a significant impact on hitting. "The bigger the bat, the better you are - that would be a myth," he says.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

This applies to the other extreme too. "The common perception was that if you could move something faster, i.e. it was lighter, you could generate more hand speed and potentially hit it further," says Young. "We found the opposite. What we've seen is the right cricket bat at the right BPI [is what improves performance]. Too light a cricket bat, and sometimes your bat moves too quick [for optimal connection]."

Manufacturers have managed to make bigger bats with more consistently punchy sweet spots. That is down to willow selection, a change in pressing methods, and drying out the wood to reduce the weight - sometimes to the extent that bats could get heavier than they were at point of purchase as they pick up moisture over the course of their life.

"The volume of wood in each bat is greater," says Philip Tebbutt, general manager of Gunn & Moore, "but the relative dryness of the willow in comparison to 15-20 years ago is more and the overall feel of bat on ball, and the acoustics that come hand in hand with that, are better. As are the rebound properties. So bat science and performance have improved but the sweet spots remain the same."

There is clearly more nuance to the rise in power-hitting than bigger bat equals bigger sweet spot equals bigger hitting.

"I kind of roll it back to the kind of cricket being played," says Laver. "You look at the way in which the shots are being played and the way in which the ball's being hit. A batsman is playing a very aggressive style of cricket. And so if contact's being made, the ball should be flying a long way. If the bat's just a good bat, regardless of the size of the edge, it should be going a long way."

Modern bats started getting bigger long before T20 cricket was invented. "The trend till about the mid-'90s was that international cricketers did not bother too much about the wood on the bat," says Paras Anand, co-owner and marketing director at Sanspareils Greenlands, or SG as it is popularly known.

Sachin Tendulkar favoured a bat shape with a more prominent swell by the late '90s

Sachin Tendulkar favoured a bat shape with a more prominent swell by the late '90s © Getty Images

"Then, in the mid-to-late-'90s, Sachin's bat shape became a talking point because he was using a bat that was almost 1350 grams [approx 3lb]. While he was comfortable, most of the people that time were using anything between 1150 to a maximum of 1200 grams. Naturally, the profile of the 1350 would be a lot different to an 1150 grams bat."

The profile of Tendulkar's bat, or its outline when viewed from the side, showed a bigger swell on the back than the average bat of the time. Around the time Australia toured India in 2001, Anand says, his company started receiving multiple requests for bigger bats from their "top players". At the time, the cricketing world did what Australians did, and soon enough a trend was in place, with the early wave including Indian stars like Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag.

"And that was the evolution, how you started seeing thicker-edge bats or how you started to see more wood on the back of the bat. And still, the expectation was that the bat should not be more than 1180-1200 grams.

"So when the requests started coming in for bigger profiles, manufacturing actually changed. The manufacturers had to improvise - how do we look for the lightest available cleft to get the biggest possible profile? [Clefts are pieces of wood that are cut along the grain of a tree and eventually shaped into bats.] That was the changing point, say, around 2002-03. And it reached a level where - I'm sure you would remember, there was this David Warner bat, which went viral."

At one point, says Dinger, Kookaburra was consistently making bats with edges thicker than 50mm. Usman Khawaja used the Gray-Nicolls XP80 at one stage, which was 80mm deep at the deepest point of its swell. The biggest bat Gunn & Moore made for an international cricketer had a 44mm edge and an 81mm spine.

All of this strengthens the point Laver made about the style of cricket being a bigger factor in hard hitting - because the frequency of sixes kept increasing even after the 2017 MCC restrictions.

From 2007, the year of the first T20 World Cup, till 2012, the average number of sixes per innings across formats in men's international cricket ranged between 2.5 to 3.1 an innings per calendar year. In 2013, that went up to 3.2, and since then, it has dropped under 3.7 in only one year.

The point is also backed up by former England batter Mark Butcher, who said he had "old-style" bats like the one he used in his Headingley special in 2001, that were "10x better" than some of the new-shaped ones he used seven years later. "I also had some amazing new-shaped ones and terrible old-shaped ones. Bats are organic and all perform differently. Batters have changed more than a bat's performance has."

There have been trade-offs during the evolution in bat production. Lighter bats require lighter clefts, which could compromise on density. Combine that with the frequency of attacking shots in modern cricket and you have bats that don't last as long as they used to. An average bat for an SG-contracted international player lasts between 800 and 1000 Test runs. In T20s, there's a telling difference.

"In T20s it would not last for more than 500-600 runs," says Anand. "Because you're even trying to hit a yorker now. If you go back 20 years when there was no T20 cricket, every time somebody would bowl a yorker, you would defend it. So that much change has happened in the game because of T20s and it definitely takes a toll on the product."

Another change batmakers have observed is that players are less interested in customising their bats for different conditions. The logic for doing so was simple: bouncier decks, higher swell. This would change the balance of the bat to aid horizontal-bat shots; Dravid is on record about dabbling in such a customisation before a South Africa tour in 2001. In the subcontinent, the swell would run lower, and the bats heavier, to adjust for lower and slower pitches; this tweak is something the Australians of the early 2000s, in particular, were keen on when they toured the subcontinent.

Clefts at the Laver & Wood workshop await shaping

Clefts at the Laver & Wood workshop await shaping Marty Melville / © AFP/Getty Images

With the advent of multiple formats, however, this kind of customisation is not so popular. Laver thinks that a lot of cricketers aren't adjusting very well to different formats, and are tending to try and stick with the bats they like. "They kind of try to shoot down the middle and not go too drastic either way, because they're trying to find a more consistent game."

Anand has heard something along those lines from Rishabh Pant. "He said, 'Earlier I used to do that - if I was going to Australia, two years ago, I would want to have a bat with a sweet spot which is more towards the handle. When I'd come to India I'd want to play with a slightly heavier bat, and maybe the sweet spot lower.' But he says now - and it's not just him, I've noticed other players as well - I would rather just get used to one bat, one weight, one shape, one size, dimension and everything. No matter where I'm playing. Just get used to it and I'll adapt more with my bat swing, the way I'm positioning myself or the way I'm standing, rather than changing my bat. Because the fact that I keep changing the weight of the bat confuses me further."

Through conversations with batmakers around the world, what emerges is that the language around sweet spots may not be entirely accurate, and that is because it is easier to say that sweet spots move or get bigger rather than explain the physics of balance and swing. We see retail terms like "high-mid sweet spot" or "low sweet spot", but it could simply be that the balance of a bat is different, allowing you to hit off the sweet spot more consistently in different conditions.

A cricketer in the 1980s may theoretically have gotten away with more false shots with a bigger bat, but that notion discounts the change in hitting technique and intent of the modern cricketer.

So there is no simple answer to the question of whether bigger has meant better. Bat technology and better willow selection and treatment have made it easier to hit off the sweet spot more consistently, and increased the margin for error when you don't. The sweet spot itself, though, is more or less what - and where - it has always been.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo