Cricket can seem a very refined and typically British game from the spectators’ point of view: sipping tea from a thermos, eating cucumber sandwiches (if you’ve been organised enough to pack them) and watching players in spotless white uniforms on a sunny afternoon. From the point of view of the players, however, it is a different proposition altogether – a battle that combines wits, speed, skill, patience and aggression. A game where your whites soon get covered with sweat, grass, mud, red dye rubbed off the ball and possibly even bloodstains (if you face a particularly fast bowler or graze yourself diving for a spectacular catch. A game where you rely on body armour and a weapon almost as much as a medieval knight.
If you are a cricketer or have one in your household, you probably have to deal with the gear that gets lugged home in the gearbag. The whites are more or less straightforward. But what about the bat? How do you clean and look after that?
First of all, it is very important that you never try to wash the bat with water. Bats need to be protected from excess moisture that will soften and weaken the willow. If a bat is smeared with mud (not from play but from brushing up against something dirty in the gearbag), then brush it off if possible. If it does not come off easily, then use a very slightly damp cloth and dry the place off straight away.
Do not try to clean off red marks made by striking the ball. These are marks of honour and proof of a good hard game.
While you should make sure that your bat does not get wet, do not let it get too dry, either. Never store or stand a bat in front of a fire or radiator, or in the back of a car where it air becomes dry and overheated and when storing it over winter, keep it in a place where it can get a little moisture from the air, much in the same way as musical instruments have to be kept. If you are lucky enough to play in a place with a very dry climate, then you could try the old trick of putting a jar of water in the shed to keep the air moist.
Periodically, check the face of the bat for signs of cracking. Minor cracks are part of normal wear and tear and should not be a cause for concern. Major cracks, however, are a sign that all is not well. If you see one, purchase a new bat and start the knocking-in process immediately. Major cracks mostly appear on the toe of bats used by hard-hitters who try to score off fast Yorkers. Minor cracks can be gently sanded down then taped with fibreglass tape.
Oiling with linseed oil is an important part of caring for your cricket bat. Use a little oil on a soft cloth. Do not over-oil your bat – most problems seen by professional bat manufacturers and experts arise from over-oiling the bat rather than under-oiling. Oil the face and the toe of the bat. Never oil the splice as this will weaken the bond between bat and handle. Lay your bat flat after oiling rather than standing it upright, otherwise the oil will seep down to the toe and over-soften it.
Always remember to knock a new bat in correctly and oil it properly before use. You should get instructions for doing this when you purchase a new bat. Some bats can be bought match-ready, but these will still need proper maintenance.