Darshil Shah: Meet the brain behind the bamboo bat

When Dr Darshil Shah tinkered with the core of a cricket bat, he knew the traditionalists would bristle. The custodians of the game were not expected to take too kindly to his innovation of replacing the old willow with laminated bamboo.

Shah and co-author Ben Tinkler-Davies concluded in their study that the laminated bamboo bat was robust, offered a better “sweet spot,” and delivered more energy to the ball on impact.

The study was published in the Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology, but Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which frames the rules of the sport, deemed their prototype bat illegal.

“The law would need to be altered to allow bamboo specifically, as even if it were to be recognised as a wood, this would still be illegal under the current law, which bans lamination of the blade, except in junior bats,” an MCC statement said, even as it welcomed the experiment, terming “this angle of willow alternatives as something that must be considered”.

Shah knows what the biggest hindrance is in the official acceptance of their ‘invention’.

“The lamination of a bamboo bat is the biggest sticking point. We knew that getting MCC to change the rules on it would be a long shot. I’m not expecting that to happen. That would be a big rule change for them,” Shah told The Indian Express over phone. “Unfortunately, there isn’t any other way to manufacture a bamboo bat without laminating it. That’s because bamboo is hollow, and in order to make it into a solid piece, one needs to assemble different strips and glue them together.”


Cricket bats The research noted that prototype bats made out of laminated bamboo were 40 percent heavier and more robust than those made from the traditional willow. (Express Archive)

Nevertheless, Shah, 33, is hoping his research prompts people – particularly bat-makers, law-makers and other innovators – to look beyond traditional willow, a scarce commodity, and try other sustainable alternatives.

“If they deem bamboo as illegal, it’s absolutely fine. But they ought to open their minds to other sustainable alternatives as well. “English willow has been used to manufacture cricket bats for the past 200 years. There are over 10,000 species of wood… so why would you want to make it with just one material that’s in short supply. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. For example, you don’t make a sitar with one particular tree. You use different varieties to make them. So, why should cricket bats be any different?” he wondered.

For now, he said he would be content if his prototype bat gets used in junior cricket. Following the publication of the study, a particularly cryptic message caught Shah’s attention. It said: “Why fix things, when it isn’t broken?”

But he has a reply ready. “One of the things with innovation is that it foresees challenges. Willow is in short supply, but the reach of the game is increasing. Since bamboo is found in abundance in Mexico, China and South-East Asia – countries that have been showing keen interest in cricket – it makes sense to make that shift,” he reasoned.

Bat-ball balance

In response to the argument that replacing willow with bamboo with a bigger and better sweet spot would tilt the balance of cricket even more towards batsmen, Shah suggests changes elsewhere.

“Since I’m a medium pacer, I am always sympathetic towards bowlers. Two things need to change to bring bowlers back into the game. First, change the nature of pitches. Second, bat sizes need to be regulated. Make the cricket bats wafer-thin, just like they were back in the 1970s. Only then will the balance between bat and ball be achieved. But I doubt that’s ever going to happen.”.

He plans modifications in his own bamboo bat, 40 per cent heavier than the one made of willow, to redress the balance. “Our next effort will be to reduce the weight by reducing the bat’s thickness. One of the most annoying sights for a fast bowler is to see a top edge going for a six. If the bat’s edges are much thinner, while retaining the sweet spot, batsmen will get full value for middling the ball. It would be a win-win scenario for batsmen and bowlers,” Shah offered.

Love of the game

When Shah is not working at Cambridge University’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation, designing skyscrapers and examining sustainable alternatives to conventional materials, one can find him at Little Shelford Club, bowling medium pacers or thwacking the leather ball.

“Cricket is a game I love and think deeply about. I was barely four when my parents migrated with me from Ahmedabad to Bangkok, where my father is employed with a firm that manufactures polyester fibre. By the time I turned 13, I graduated to Thailand’s junior-grade cricket team and participated at Asian Championship tourneys. By 19, I shifted to the UK for my undergraduate course at Nottingham University. It put a brake on my cricketing career but I returned to the game after a four-year hiatus at the English village level during the time I was pursuing my PhD,” Shah informed.

Thought and process

It’s this love for the game and the scarcity of English willow precipitated by global warming, that prompted the thinking behind the development of the laminated bamboo bat prototype. The research was conducted with Tinkler-Davies, one of Shah’s under-graduate students.

The duo sourced the materials themselves before soliciting the services of a local bat manufacturer Garrard and Flack, who used the same machines and techniques to craft the prototype bamboo bat that do for the willow one. The initial feedback was startling.

“When I showed it to friends at my club, they didn’t quite realise it was made from bamboo. And for the purists of the game, you don’t need to worry about losing that traditional sound of leather on willow. The only difference was that it was substantially heavier,” Shah said.

The other important consideration was the price aspect. “In India, a Grade A bat would cost up to Rs 20,000. If you want kids from the lower strata to play the game, you will have to lower the bat’s cost. The scarcity of willow, coupled with the transportation and import duty, is the reason for such inflated levels,” he pointed out. In comparison, Shah expects the cost of a bamboo bat to be at least 30 per cent lower on average because of its abundant supply and easy procurement.

The MCC said they will discuss the sustainability aspect of the bamboo bat at the next laws sub-committee meeting. “It’s great that MCC came up with a statement the other day, where they spoke about sustainability and cost-effective nature. We haven’t received a call from them as yet. If we do, we will only be happy to meet, discuss and put our views across,” he concluded.

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