The word craftsmanship isn’t necessarily one you would associate with modern-day cricket. With big brands wading into the sport it seems the tradition and heritage of the sport is all but fading, that is unless you’ve heard of Millichamp & Hall.
Meet Rob Chambers - Master Bat Maker and owner of M&H, one of the last companies to hand make bats from English willow. To find out more, we recently visited his workshop nestled behind Somerset County Cricket Club to learn more about his love for the sport.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the history of M&H?
“The company was formed in 1987 by two chaps - Julian Millichamp, an Australian cricket bat maker, and the other was Jonathon Hall, a successful businessman. At the time, most cricket brands were moving away from handmade cricket bats and edging toward automated manufacturing. In response, Julian and John set up a bespoke, handmade cricket bat company – M&H was born.
“In the early years, they’d do a summer in Australia and then a summer back here in Somerset. Annoyingly that was before my time so I never got to enjoy the perks of a double summer! My involvement with the company started in 1997 where I was first employed as an apprentice bat maker - serving my early years as an apprentice and mastering the craft of creating a bespoke cricket bat.”
So you’ve worked your way up right from the bottom?
“Well, during my time the head bat maker emigrated to Australia which left me in the very fortunate position of chief bat maker. It was quite an odd scenario, an 18-year-old bat maker with apprentices aged 20 years older than him! Time went by and in 2001 I was offered the opportunity to actually purchase the company. Friends and family encouraged me to take the leap – so, a very fresh faced 21-year-old took over M&H and the rest is history.
“I muddled my way through the business side of things. Making bats is one skill but then running a successful business is something completely different. It was tough in the early years, no one took me seriously! It’s safe to say that I’ve done every job in the business.”
Millichamp & Hall is famed for some of the best cricket bats in the game. Talk us through the process of shaping a bat from start to finish…
“All cricket bats at M&H are made using English willow which we source from East Anglia. It’s one of the most expensive woods out there – there’s actually a shortage of willow in the world at the moment. We work carefully with our suppliers to ensure that only the best is used in our bats.
“Once dried, the willow arrives roughly pre-cut to our workshop and it goes through the pressing process – arguably the most important part! We have to bring the wood alive by pressing it with a unique machine to make sure it has the right characteristics for a cricket bat. Imagine that pressing a bat is like tuning a musical instrument – we press it until we get the perfect sound and feel from the wood. That’s the true skill of a bat maker, and something that sets M&H apart from any other brand.
“The next most important part is the handle – this is often overlooked by manufacturers but we really place a big focus on getting this right. Often cheap handles are used which means they break easily. We’ve been producing the best handle in the business now for 30 years.
“From there it’s all hand shaping for the two styles we do – traditional and dynamic. These have been designed over years to get the best performance out of a piece of wood, enabling a player to have something that looks huge but is actually very light.”
How does an M&H bat develop over a season?
“Bats get much better with age, they’re often at their best just before they’ve given up the ghost. We have a lot of broken hearted players walking through the door asking us to do repairs. They’re desperate to keep them going – even if that takes nails, glue or string.
“The reality is, a cricket bat is like a pair of your favourite shoes. Once you’ve broken in a bat you’ll feel comfortable playing out on the crease – it becomes an extension of your arm. Our biggest problem is trying to replicate that for someone, it’s very hard as no two pieces of wood are identical.”
How important is style for you in cricket? Would you agree that there’s nothing worse than someone using different branded gloves, bats and pads with an untucked shirt?
“Cricket is a gentleman’s game and there’s nothing worse than a scruffy cricketer! People should treat their gear with respect - the pet hate of any bat maker is seeing any tantrums with bats being thrown around. It’s certainly important to look good but there’s nothing worse than having all the gear but with no idea.”
This year’s world cup winning women’s team have arguably changed the face of English cricket forever. Are we on the cusp of explosive growth for the sport?
“It’s about time the women’s game receives the respect it deserves – it’ now one of the fastest growing women’s sport in the UK. We’re seeing a lot of women coming through our doors asking to try out bats. It’s an exciting time for women’s cricket and we’re excited to be a part of the sport growing!”
What does the future hold for M&H, will there always be a demand for handcrafted bats?
“I would like to see the company become more global, at the moment we sell overseas but only in a small way. In fact, we’ve actually just resumed selling back into Australia after 10 years off. There are huge opportunities for us as a business out in India, Dubai, Europe and in the USA. Wherever we are, our focus will remain on producing the best bats out there. It’s an exciting time for us, watch this space…”
Now for some quick fire questions. Favourite cricketer of all time?
If you could be one other cricketer for a day, who would you be?
What song would you have playing when walking out to bat?
“Obviously the Batman theme tune…”
Can England win the Ashes this year?