James Laver poses in his workshop

An Englishman in New Zealand: James Laver poses with one from his assembly line

© John Cowpland (Alphapix)


The wizard of Waipawa

How did a company in a one-street Kiwi town become a bat-making powerhouse?

Will Macpherson  |  

Waipawa lies in deepest, darkest Hawke's Bay, a 45-minute drive south of Napier, first-class cricket's most easterly outpost. The journey takes you through dusty, dry farmland and rolling hills of wine country, past parched sheep and sun-soaked vines, the Pacific popping in and out of view. Waipawa is out in the sticks: beautiful, but quiet. Really quiet.

Cruising into this pretty place, essentially a typical one-street Kiwi town of 2000, there is little sign of cricketing life. There is no immediately obvious club, just the staples: supermarket, butcher's, library, liquor store, petrol station and a couple of cafés. Nothing to see here. Or so you would think.

Nestled at the southern end of that one street, is an innocuous looking warehouse cum workshop, fronted by a tiny shop that is home to a company that does business with the game's biggest names: a world leader in cricket's oldest and most refined craft. Welcome to Laver & Wood Cricket Bats.

The business that James Laver has built in Waipawa is a curious one, full of contradictions. His workshop is low-tech to the point of being no-tech, and the craft and method of making bats - at least making bats with human hands, the way he does it - hasn't changed for a century. Yet his business model is utterly reliant on technology, dependent on the internet. The company is known - particularly in professional playing circles, where word travels fast on such matters - for making bats for legends of the game. He won't reveal the active players on his roster, but Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Sanath Jayasuriya are among Laver's more illustrious clients.

Every change made to a cricket bat - longer, heavier, lighter, wider, fatter edges, length of handle - has a trade-off. Laver's job is to strike the deal with the devil

Laver's bats are all over the world, but he can still pick one up, however old, and know that it was his hands that crafted it. So how did he end up here, both geographically - at the edge of nowhere - and professionally, as the pre-eminent purveyor of his craft and the man the pros want to know?

It comes as no surprise that Laver stumbled upon both bat-making and Waipawa. The slightly scrambled vowels of a Kiwi accent mask the fact that he hails from England, where after a stint at London's South Bank Polytechnic, he started working as a construction engineer. But weeks later, in the midst of the 1992 recession, he was laid off. A chance meeting with Julian Millichamp - of Taunton-based Millichamp & Hall - revealed that they sought an apprentice. An interest in cricket, that engineering degree and fond memories of making furniture with his father saw Laver head down to Taunton, and stay. For someone who had never even contemplated making a bat before, this was a trial by fire. Millichamp's place was the kind of spot that the world's best cricketers would just wander into. Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Lara were customers Laver encountered in his early days in Somerset, so he had to learn, and fast.

"Loads of top players were coming through the doors," he tells me once we've settled down in his Waipawa workshop in early March. "So I had to get to grips not only with making bats, but making bats for specific people and tailoring a bat to a batsman, which was more difficult because I wasn't particularly a player myself. If it comes naturally to you, you can become competent quickly, within a year or two. The key for me was just picking the brains of all these top guys about exactly what they looked for and how it linked to their game. That taught me what shapes, weights and specs would suit certain types of batsmen."

Smell the varnish: A Laver & Wood bat is born

Smell the varnish: A Laver & Wood bat is born © John Cowpland (Alphapix)

After a year, Laver knew he had found his calling. He rose through the ranks at M&H to become overseer of all bat production ("as high up in the company as I was going to be without being a partner, I guess"), making bats for the great and the good, and stayed until September 1998, when he resolved - as he had always wanted to ("it was just a case of when") - to move to New Zealand with his Kiwi wife, Nicola. That, naturally, meant a professional shift. First, there was six months away from making bats in Waikanae, near Wellington. But having decided to start his own business, he was drawn to Waipawa by George Wood, who made polo and croquet mallets, and with whom he would enter into partnership in 1999. Laver & Wood was born.

So we have our bat maker, our accomplished - if not quite master - craftsman. But how, then, did sleepy, silent Waipawa become a bat-making powerhouse, and Laver's the number the stars wanted on speed dial?

The business set-up is small and, for one with such global reach, involves a small number of employees working very hard. Laver parted ways with Wood many years ago as their aims diverged ever more. These days there's Pilar the administrator, Kim who runs the website, Simon the business manager, Ant dealing with sales, and Toby the apprentice, alongside Laver, who makes the bats and runs the business with his wife. Laver is in at 5am daily to make bats. However busy he may be with the business side of the company, and as uncomfortable as he is saying it, when it's no longer his hands on the handle, Laver & Wood will cease to exist.

Laver's bats are all over the world, but he can still pick one up, however old, and know that it was his hands that crafted it

As he shows me around his workshop - returned bats of legends hanging on the walls, works in progress scattered about, the different grades of wood, the unmechanised tools of the trade, Toby is busy putting the finishing touches to a blade behind us - Laver begins to take me through the bat-making process. As the conversation gets technical, and to the edge of my understanding of both physics and batsmanship, the sheer depth of his knowledge and experience shines through.

"It's important to see the bat as simply an extension of the batsman's body," he says, throwing an interesting slant on bad workmen blaming their tools. You can't blame something that's part of you, can you? "Many people can make beautiful bats. But it's about marrying them to a batsman, and that's the most important aspect of my trade. Our aim is to be utterly unique, and the way we do that is through lengthy discussion about the way a player bats and watching them, too. We can make any shape or weight distribution. You walk into shops and workshops and there are just so many bats to choose from that you don't know where to start. We need to break it down for people. So as soon as a player starts missing certain balls consistently they'll be trying to correct that. When you talk to a guy he'll know what he's doing wrong and it's your job to try to help, so knowing batting inside out is crucial."

Made to order: Laver's bats are custom-made for the biggest names in the sport

Made to order: Laver's bats are custom-made for the biggest names in the sport © John Cowpland (Alphapix)

Every change made to a cricket bat - longer, heavier, lighter, wider, fatter edges, length of handle - has a trade-off. Laver's job is to strike the deal with the devil. Want to stand up taller? You'll want a longer blade, says one shoulder. But in doing so, says the other, you'll lose bat-speed, and while it may be longer but no heavier, that weight is further away from the hands, so it will feel heavier and more difficult to control. Thus, two bats weighing exactly the same can feel worlds apart in weight. A thin handle offers greater control, says one shoulder, but also makes the bat's pick-up heavier, reminds the other. All these are aspects of batsmanship that the layman may be able to feel, or identify, but is unlikely to be able to articulate, explain, or use to cure one's own batting ills. All of which makes Laver sounds less physicist than physician, diagnosing batting problems and offering a prescription. It's no panacea, but having the right kit can do no harm, surely.

"Most players - even the pros - a rough spell comes along and they're trying to change their set-up or weight or spec or whatever. Jacob Oram was a great example. He was using these long bats and was a big, strong bloke but they were just so, so heavy. I was watching his game and said he needed a lighter bat, just through the weight distribution, making it slightly thinner and pushing all the weight up a bit. He tried it and loved the difference. Previously, because he'd wanted long bats, the makers just hadn't been getting the weight distribution right, so they'd feel too heavy for him.

"Jayasuriya scored a double-century against England but broke his bat at the end of innings. From there, every bat he had, he wanted absolutely identical to that" James Laver

"With the big names, it's a wonderful bonus. Many who I made for at Millichamp followed me here, so I was making bats for internationals again within a few months of Laver & Wood starting. They'll say, 'My usual spec is this, can you make it?' I'll offer a couple of suggestions and we'll go from there. Jayasuriya is a classic example. I made a bat for him in 1997-98. He then scored a double-century against England but broke it at the end of the innings. But he thought it was the best stick he had had, so from there, every bat he had, he wanted it absolutely identical to that. If he was going through a bad patch, which happens to everyone, his bat would never change. But that guy hit the ball so hard he could get through 20 bats a year."

Laver's relationship with the big names is odd. He wouldn't go traipsing about chasing them. He might catch up with a player if, by chance, they are playing in Napier, but generally, "we might work together for 15 years and never meet. Lots of companies will go in and make a bat for someone like Sachin, just give it to him, but always make sure there was someone taking photos of them giving him the bat. Instantly he's on their site and in the portfolio - 'he's using our bat' - but in reality you've just given him one! That's not our style."

An unlikely batsman's paradise: a street in Waipawa

An unlikely batsman's paradise: a street in Waipawa © Laver & Wood

That distant relationship with the players only adds to the mystique and mystery: these wonderful bats being crafted, tucked away where cricket never comes.

The bats Laver makes are as beautiful as the quiet corner of the world in which they are crafted. He only uses the finest willow - no knots, and utterly consistent - and glues the splice differently to standard manufacturers; it takes longer but means they get far fewer spliced bats.

Many bats in the workshop are labelled up in typically understated style, ready for sale or delivery to laymen cricketers. But a few are sticker-less, waiting to be sent off to a player's sponsor. I can't believe that this isn't a source of frustration for Laver. He produces a beautiful thing, and no one knows it's his. Here lies the final, peculiar contradiction in a contradictory, peculiar business. His bats are seen the world over, dressed up in larger, better-known firms' branding, yet Laver couldn't care less how they're presented, as long as they're creating bundles of runs. "Oh, I don't mind that," he smiles nonchalantly.

That, ultimately, is the place in a nutshell. A few old bats hang, but self-aggrandising photos don't cover the walls. Laver has no list of cricketers he has made bats for. No fuss, no carry-on, just a passion for creating wonderful bats in a warehouse tucked away in Nowheresville. Little wonder the big names keep coming back.

Will Macpherson is a freelance cricket journalist who writes for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket