Rare NZ cricket craft makes major impact

It's hard to believe but a small town in NZ is making an impact on some of the world's biggest cricket stars.

Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Ian Botham, Viv Richards, Sanath Jayasuriya. Among cricket’s greatest names, they all have something else in common: a small-town New Zealander made their bats. 

Technically, cricket bat craftsman James Laver was born an Englishman, and grew up in Kenya and the Solomon Islands. But he’s been an adopted Kiwi for decades, and home is a gentle farm in the central Hawke’s Bay town of Waipawa.

It’s a riverside dot of fewer than 2000 people that serves as the unlikely headquarters of one of the world’s most successful bespoke bat-making businesses, Laver & Wood.

Surrounded by wispy willow shavings and the redolent perfume of linseed oil, stand in this romantic, square workshop and you’re standing in the place to which top international cricketers pay a visit whenever they tour New Zealand.

Prized tool

Many of New Zealand’s BLACKCAPS, too, consider a bat hand-made by James Laver, who trained for eight years under England master craftsmen Millichamp & Hall, to be the most prized tool of their trade.

The secret is getting the balance of the bat — how it feels when you pick it up and swing it into your backlift — to match the kind of shots you like to play.

Depending on which strokes you play most often, and most confidently, certain areas of the blade have to be particularly resilient. Laver achieves this by careful cleft selection, followed by a top-secret method of compressing and drying the wood accordingly. 

World's best

The clefts are imported from J.S.Wright & Sons because, although plenty of willows grow locally along the river, English willow is the word’s best. That’s because it grows more slowly, but surely, in an ideal climate. Laver studies the unique nature of each piece and sculpts it into a bat according to a cricketer’s specificiations — or rather, helps them determine what those personal specifications are in the first place, after detailed conversations and carefully scrutinising the player’s techniques.

The personable Laver loves his rare craft. He routinely rises at 4am to potter down to his workshop. “I can’t sleep in to save myself,” he explains. It’s about problem-solving as much as wood-turning. Customising the length of the handle, blade length and location of the ‘sweet spot’ to maximise run-making potential is all part of the process, too.

Not just for stars

He doesn’t make cricket bats just for the superstars, either. The beauty of this highly specialised, boutique business is that any cricket lover can order a bespoke bat. In his rural workshop, the expert can finish a remarkable 50 bats a week at full steam, with a two-week turnaround after you place your order.

But be warned: Laver and Wood’s international reputation is rapidly spreading, particularly in the big markets of India, Australia and the UAE. For the past two months, they have received record export orders, back to back. 

“We send bats to the most unlikely places,” says Anthony van Dorsten, sales and marketing manager for the Kiwi success story run with just five staff members. “Norway. Singapore. Finland. Holland.

There’s a club in St Tropez, France, of ex-pat Kiwis who will use only our bats. Another in California. Finding the perfect bat is part of the great romance of cricket and many of our clients have not used anything else for years.”

Visit the workshop

The age of the internet order means distance is no obstacle, of course. Even in a remote country town, thanks to Laver & Wood’s website and Facebook page. But with pretty, sun-soaked Waipawa lying on the state highway between two 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup venues — it’s just a 40-minute drive south of Napier, on the road to Wellington — there’s a golden opportunity for Cricket World Cup visitors to visit the workshop, meet the guru of whittled willow in person, see and compare the instruments of famous cricketers all around them and participate in customising their own dream bat. 

The Laver & Wood workshop is open week days or by appointment only during the weekends during the 2015 Cricket World Cup and, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch Laver demonstrating the age-old art of polishing a finished bat using a shin bone from a horse — the bone soaked in linseed oil for a year before it’s ready to use. It’s the traditional method of sealing the willow. He got the bone when a neighbour’s dearly loved farm hack that passed away from old age.

Labour of love

Laver has made over 35,000 bats and each one is a labour of love. “You’re working with natural materials, no two alike. Wood can behave in unpredictable ways, so every cleft is a fresh challenge. We love our bats, and we look after our customers throughout the bat’s life.”