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The master craftsman still making cricket bats by hand

James Laver in his Waipawa workshop. The names of his more famous clients are a closely guarded secret, but signed souvenirs from happy customers hang on the wall behind him.

One of the few craftsmen still making cricket bats by hand, James Laver turns out bespoke blades for an international clientele from his old-fashioned workshop in Waipawa.

You could, perhaps, put it down to Nicola. Englishman James Laver was in his 20s and pursuing a newfound vocation – creating bespoke cricket bats for a company in Somerset – when he met a Kiwi girl, Nicola Kyle, and was knocked for six.

Before long, they’d decamped to New Zealand and found themselves in Hawke’s Bay, where Nicola had worked at Napier Hospital. “She brought me here and showed me something really good,” he says.

That was back in September, 1998. Almost two decades on, the small team at his boutique business in Waipawa, Laver & Wood, make premium-quality cricket bats for some of the best players in the world.

A lofty 1.95m tall, Laver talks avidly about smoothing planes and off-drives and the thrill of the drawknife. But he shies away from naming his current elite customers – an unwillingness to beat his own drum that’s quaintly endearing in an age of big-brand flaunting. Nor will he embrace the idea of sponsorship. However, now-retired Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Ian Botham and Viv Richards have all wielded a polished club of willow fashioned in his little workshop near the banks of the Waipawa River. 

Born in Kent, Laver spent his early years in Kenya, then boarding school in the UK with school-holiday visits to the Solomon Islands, where his parents eventually worked. “I never really knew Britain as a child, living in the fairly closed world of a boarding school,” he says. “I feel much more at home here in New Zealand.”

Graduating in 1989 as a construction engineer, he was laid off along with 300 others a month after starting his first job. By chance, he met bat-maker Julian Millichamp, of Millichamp and Hall, and fell in love with this ancient craft. “I found my niche there,” says Laver, an armchair cricket fan who admits he was never much good at playing the sport himself. “I’d enjoyed woodwork at school and this was refined joinery, which suited me fine.”

Bespoke bats made from imported English willow.

Using willow imported from England, each Laver & Wood bat is handmade to the exact requirements of customers: height, weight and build; whether they play big slogs or off drives. In what Laver describes as a “very old-fashioned workshop, really”, he’s up to his elbows in drawknives, planes, spoke-shaves and rasps, as well as industrial quantities of sandpaper and elbow grease. Bat-makers from a century ago would be at home amidst the wood shavings and smell of polish.

These days, though, virtually all of the company’s sales come via the internet. “For an old traditional craftsman, it’s not something you’re inclined to learn,” says Laver, who’s a venerable 46.

Surprisingly, the United States accounts for nearly 40 per cent of their market, followed by Australia (29 per cent), New Zealand (22 per cent) and a smattering of other countries. India beckons. “They are fixated on cricket,” says Laver, who spent two weeks in the subcontinent earlier this year. “There, it’s a Rolls-Royce business. Money is no problem.”

Expansion plans are on the table: more staff, more capital, a move before long to Napier to be closer to transport hubs. And Waipawa will farewell a niche business that for two decades has largely flown under the radar. 

This article was originally published by RNZ.