By Radhika Bhirani
Nestled in Waipawa, a small town in Hawke’s Bay in North Island, a region famous for its wines, James Laver has been carving many a cricketing dream – literally! With two decades’ experience in making customised bats and a clientele of greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Brian Lara, the master craftsman says almost 60 percent of his customers are Indian.
This, considering that India itself is one of the leading manufacturers of cricket bats in the world. But Laver offers an edge over most under his brand Laver & Wood.
He agrees that quality of manufacture in mass production of cricket bats has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, but said that a customised bat ensures a cricketer gets something suitable.
Laver, an expert in shaving and shaping the blade of a bat, himself hand-crafts each piece individually to suit a customer’s specifications after carefully understanding and reviewing the requirements laid down.
What’s more, this can be done by phone, email or even over a Facebook chat.
Months ahead of the 2015 ICC World Cup, IANS met the man with a towering personality – well, he stands tall at 6′ 5″ for a walk and talk at the sprawling Te Awanga, where amidst multiple hectares lie green pastures, mountains, sheep and cattle, is a uniquely situated and awe-inspiring cricket pitch for members of a Clifton County Cricket Club.
“Most customers of my bats, say 60 percent of them, would be from India…actually from Indians across the world. Apart from quite a few in India, there are a lot of Indian expats too,” Laver, who once visited India as a teenager, told this visiting IANS correspondent.
“I’d love to visit the country again. I have a few bats from India as I’ve some friends who send them for me to test. I’ve always liked the techniques of how bats are made in India.
“But some Indian bat makers send them to me to check what’s right or wrong about them. So, we do some consultancy on bats as well,” the 42-year-old said during the tete-a-tete on a bright, sunny and windy afternoon here, just days after the World Cup trophy toured Napier, one of the cities which will host matches here next year.
Laver’s clients range from those who play social cricket to those who play in good leagues and of course those who play first-class cricket. And Indians apart, cricket lovers in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brazil and Hong Kong are also a good market for the bat-maker.
But as he rightly describes it, it’s “people who want something a little more special and personalised”.
“In the past, I’ve done bats for Brian Lara, (Sachin) Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and a lot of Sri Lankan players. Sachin has used my bats for the past few years. Sanath Jayasuriya has been a very good customer of ours, apart from Mahela Jayawardene,” he said.
In fact, Jayasuriya scored a double ton in a 1998 England-Sri Lanka match with a bat crafted by Laver.
“It was the first bat I made for him. He still has that bat and always had me make the same bat specifications until his retirement,” he recollected.
Laver is definite about ending up with “a lot of trade” during the upcoming World Cup, courtesy the players’ last minute rush – which by now he’s quite used to.
He estimates he would have hand-crafted nearly 40,000 bats in his 20-year love story with bat making, before which he was inclined towards carving furniture and random items using wood.
A qualified construction engineer, Laver, who was brought up in Kenya and briefly in the Solomon Islands, took up a related job in 1990 in Britain. But when recession struck, he changed track to start a new career in 1991 as a bat maker. He worked as an apprentice with bat maker Millichamp and Hall in Somerset, before moving to New Zealand in 1998 to set up Laver & Wood in 1999.
Britain is from where he gets his supply of quality English willow, using which he makes over 1,500 bats a year. This year, he’s hoping to score about 1,800.