Howzat! Bamboo to Replace Willow in Bats? It’s Just (Not) Cricket

For more than 300 years, cricket bats have been made from English willow. However, a 2021 study that claims that cricket bats made from bamboo (rather than English or Kashmir willow) could be the future of the sport

Sat 29 Jun 24


As South Africa and India prepare for the final of the World T20, tests have shown that cricket bats made from bamboo are stronger, offer a better ‘sweet spot’, and deliver far more energy to the ball than those made from traditional English and Kashmir willow.

The study, published by the University of Cambridge, argues that bamboo could help cricket expand faster in poorer parts of the world and, at the same time, preserve precious stocks of Kashmir Willow, which are now running out due to overharvesting on disputed lands on the Indian and Pakistani border.

“The sound of leather on willow” may have delighted cricket supporters since at least the early parts of the 18th century. However, researchers at Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation argue that the MCC—which owns and maintains the Laws of Cricket—should introduce new laws legalising the production of the next generation of cricket bats from bamboo.

That is according to Dr Darshil Shah and Department of Engineering alumnus Ben Tinkler-Davies, who spent years comparing the performance of specially made prototype laminated bamboo cricket bats with willow bats.

Their investigations included microscopic analysis, video capture technology, computer modelling, compression testing, measuring how knocking-in improved surface hardness, and testing for vibrations.

The bamboo prototype. According to the researchers, players using bamboo bats would not feel any more vibration than with a willow bat. (Photo Credit: Cambridge University via the Evening Standard)
The bamboo prototype. According to the researchers, players using bamboo bats would not feel any more vibration than with a willow bat. (Photo Credit: Cambridge University via the Evening Standard)

The study, published in The Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology, shows that bamboo is significantly stronger—with a strain at failure more than three times greater—than willow and can hold much higher loads. This means that bats made with bamboo could be thinner while remaining as potent as willow.

Theoretically, this would help batters as lighter blades can be swung faster to transfer more energy to the ball. The researchers also found that bamboo is 22% stiffer than willow, which increases the speed at which the ball leaves the bat.

During manufacture, the surface of cricket bats is compressed to create a hardened layer. When the team compared the effect of this ‘knock-in’ process on both materials, they found that after 5 hours, bamboo’s surface hardness had increased to twice that of pressed willow.

The ideal “sweet spot.”

The researchers found that the sweet spot on their prototype bamboo blade performed 19% better than a traditional English willow bat. This sweet spot was about 20 mm wide and 40 mm long, significantly larger than on a typical willow bat, and better still, was positioned closer to the toe (12.5 cm from the toe at its sweetest point).

Co-author Dr Darshil Shah, a former member of Thailand’s under-19 national cricket team, said, “This is a batsman’s dream. The sweet spot on a bamboo bat makes it much easier for starters to hit a four off a Yorker, but it’s exciting for all kinds of strokes. We’d need to adjust our technique to make the most of it, and the bat’s design requires a little optimisation.”

The pair also tested for comfort and found that bamboo had a similar ‘damping ratio’ to willow, meaning that a similar amount of force is transferred to a player’s hands when they strike the ball. In other words, players using bamboo bats wouldn’t feel any more vibration than if they tried out a willow bat.

The vast majority of cricket bats are manufactured in India from forests worldwide. In the North Indian city of Meerut, tens of thousands of cricket bats are produced every year – including Sachin Tendulkar’s bats. Footage courtesy of @DiscoveryTV.

The study points out that there is a shortage of good-quality willow. It takes up to 15 years to mature—mainly in England—to the point where the wood can be used to make cricket bats. Bat makers often have to throw away a large quantity (up to 30%) of the wood they source.

By contrast, Moso and Guadua, the two most suitable types of structural bamboo, grow abundantly in China, Southeast Asia and South America. These bamboos mature twice as fast as willow, and because the cell structure in the laminated material is more regular, less raw material is wasted during manufacture.

The researchers believe that bamboo cricket bats’ high performance, low cost of production, and increased sustainability could make them a viable and ethical alternative to willow.

Mr Ben Tinkler-Davies said: “Cricket brings you close to nature; you spend hours in the field, but I think the sport can do much more for the environment by promoting sustainability. We’ve identified a golden opportunity to achieve that while helping lower-income countries produce bats at lower cost.”

Willow vs. Bamboo

In the nineteenth century, cricket bat makers experimented with various types of wood. Still, from the 1890s, they settled on the sapwood of Salix Alba, a light-coloured willow, for the blade as it offered high stiffness, low density and visual appeal. The use of cane in cricket has been limited to bat handles and pads.

Cricket bats have taken different shapes and forms since the first test match in 1877. Footage courtesy of @foxcricket.

Working with local cricket bat manufacturer Garrard & Flack, the researchers made a full-size bamboo bat prototype. They first split the bamboo culms into lengths (about 2.5 metres long), planed them flat, and then stacked, glued, and laminated them into solid planks ready to be cut into different sizes.

While this sounds laborious, laminated bamboo avoids the rolling processes needed to harden willow. Bamboo’s cell structure naturally has a higher density than willow’s.

The materials used to make cricket bats are regulated by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the sport’s governing body. Law 5.3.2 states that “The blade shall consist solely of wood.”

Shah said: “Bamboo is grass, not wood, so there would need to be discussions with the MCC, but we think playing with a bamboo bat would be within the spirit of the game because it’s a plant-based material, and cane, a type of grass, is already used in the handle.”

800px Cricket WG Grace 1891 Cricket bats alt. scan
All cricket bats were made from English willow, but not all were equal. William Gilbert Grace, or WG Grace, is regarded as one of the greatest cricketers ever. One of the most famous personalities in 19th-century England, his cricket bat was reportedly wider than the width of the cricket wicket. 
But what about that iconic sound of leather on willow? 
“We tested that too”, Mr Tinkler-Davies said. “The frequency when willow strikes the ball is very similar – whether you’re playing or spectating, you wouldn’t notice much difference.”

To those left feeling “It’s just not cricket”, Dr Shah said: “Tradition is really important, but think about how much cricket bats, pads, gloves and helmets have already evolved. The width and thickness of bats have changed dramatically over the decades. So if we can return to having thinner bats made from bamboo while improving performance, outreach and sustainability, then why not?”

The researchers now hope to enter into discussions with the MCC and leading bat manufacturers.

According to Mr Tinkler-Davies, the prototype bat is “40% heavier than most full-size willow cricket bats, so we need to work out the optimum design to reduce that. Because laminated bamboo is so strong, we’re confident we can make a bamboo bat light enough, even for today’s fast-scoring, short game forms.”

The study generated global media coverage, particularly in the United Kingdom, India, and Australia. In The Daily Telegraph, former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan said, “I look forward to the first batsman to walk out at Lord’s carrying a bamboo bat.”


B. Tinkler-Davies, M. H. Ramage & D. U. Shah, ‘Replacing willow with bamboo in cricket bats’, Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part P: Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology (2021). DOI: 10.1177/17543371211016592


  • Wood Central

    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.


Related Articles