Melbourne’s last great independent cricket bat-maker closes up shop
Kingsville in Melbourne’s inner west is the perfect location for a workshop like Lachlan Fisher’s. Little more than a lofted drive down Williamstown Road from the alluring facade of Yarraville Oval, and a few blocks from Charles Street, where Australian cricket bat pioneers RM Crockett & Sons once created their wares, the master bat-maker has been plying his trade for more than 20 years, crafting exquisite bats of Australian and English willow for discerning local batsmen.
They could hardly miss Fisher’s shop, clad on one side by a mural depicting the kind of bucolic club cricket scene hoped for each weekend by the clientele who’ve made this pilgrimage across town for the past few decades. But Fisher Cricket Bats & Willow will be a fixture of the cricket community no more once its owner finalises the building’s sale in the coming months. After 29 years artfully dragging his trusty draw knife across hand-selected clefts of willow, the bat-maker is shutting up shop and relocating his life and work to Camperdown in country Victoria.
The reasons for this are manifold but predictable: Indian imports – whose makers are often paid as little as $2.50 a bat for their labour – have flooded the local market; Australian buyers are less discerning than ever but simultaneously more slavishly devoted to the brands promoted by international stars; appreciation for Fisher’s back-breaking craftsmanship and painstaking selection of materials is almost nonexistent; and – crucially, he says – participation levels in the ranks of weekend-in, weekend-out club cricketers are thinning to levels unacknowledged in Australia’s annual figures, bolstered as they are by 45-minute, plastic-bat T20 Blast sessions aimed at primary school children.
Fisher is disappointed but philosophical that his decades-old business is no longer viable to the degree it once was. “Wages in India are not going to go up much, but [bat manufacturer’s] profits are going to go up a huge amount,” he says. “They’ll shoot themselves in the foot eventually, but I’m out of here.
“I’ve had a gutful. It’s a classic example of cheap labour allowing people to just corrupt the market. It’s a manufactured product. It ain’t high tech. They can get away with cheap labour and it becomes a game of attrition – who you can outlast.
“They don’t give the workers a fair cut, in my view.”
Poorer also will be the average club batsman if Fisher’s concerns about the quality of what ends up in the hands of buyers bear out, and he says that his cynicism might soon be shared by the market. “The bats that come out of India, despite what anyone says – they bake them,” he says. “They come in here, some of them are huge but they’re quite dry because they’re baked.
“Moisture in willow means weight. One per cent moisture is one ounce of weight. So if you can get 3% of moisture out of a bat in a hot Indian summer, you can have a bat that is very light. But they lose their fibrous integrity.”
In Melbourne, moisture content in bats is necessarily far higher. “Bat manufacturing has been happening in Melbourne since the 1860s and 1870s,” Fisher says. “Because it’s 11-14% [moisture content] through the winter, it gives integrity to the willow, but that means weight.
“It’s an arms race. They’re selling on appearance rather than integrity.
“A lot of the Indian middle class are waking up to the idea that they’re buying labels but they’re not necessarily getting a good bat,” he says, adding that every time a shipment of willow lands in India the big brands are skimming off the cream for high-profile clientele and sponsored players, whose numbers have now swelled beyond the ranks of top internationals.
“It’s about the professionals getting looked after. Those really high-quality bats don’t hit the shops in India and certainly not in Australia. The Indian bats coming in here have been vetted.”
A decade ago Fisher had Test captains asking him to supply custom-made bats on which they’d plaster their high-paying sponsor’s stickers, and dozens of serious customers would walk through the door every day. Fisher sold four bats the day before my visit – decent enough – but in the hours I spend with him as the clock winds down on this Melbourne cricket institution of his, there’s only one drop-in.
Like most, he asks nothing about the quality of the bats themselves, focusing solely on their price tag. Yet at $500 to $600 for a custom-made bat shaped from the finest raw ingredients he would be paying $200 to $300 less than the retail price on an inferior blade plastered with a big-name brand.
It seems that young Melburnians only have a thirst for artisan creations when it comes to raw smoothie bowls covered in chia seeds or double-shot turmeric lattes – plus Fisher says labels are everything. “They’re very brand-oriented, yeah. They lose the brand orientation when they’re about 25 or 30. Then they just want a good bat.
“That’s too late for me. I lose sales.”
Contrary to some reports, Fisher is not downing tools entirely but nor is he holding out hope of a reversal in his business’s downward trend. Selling off his hybrid of retail store, workshop and home will enable him to simplify his life and get away from the rat race. He will continue to pursue a small but discerning clientele of older, hardcore club cricketers and customers who prize the intimacy of his service, the love and attention given to each bat and the understated beauty of the results. Each Fisher bat is a collaboration between maker and user, and worthy of that much-abused term “bespoke”.
“Occasionally you get guys in here in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and they really appreciate it,” Fisher says. “They just cannot believe that someone is still doing this job. But I can tell you now that 90% of people who walk in the door couldn’t give a stuff.”
Aside from a small, high-end custom range by the local industry heavyweight Gray Nicolls – whose master bat-maker Stuart Kranzbuhler still takes on assignments not limited to David Warner’s infamously thick-edged “Kaboom” blades – the import-heavy nature of the bat industry in Australia means that old-fashioned craftsmanship from the likes of Fisher and former Australian Test player is now heading the way of the eight-ball over.
For his current lot Fisher is not bitter as such, but he might have reaped a little more reward for his dedication, skill and forward planning. Since the early 1990s he has been planting his own willow, thus accompanying his cricket bats from the cradle to the grave – a point brought home when one surveys the row upon row of his and other maker’s bats lined up for repair. It’s with a wry chuckle that he admits covering up the shortcomings of lesser craftsmen has at times kept his business afloat. He speaks with undimmed passion for planting and growing the raw materials he ends up using in his creations.
Fisher’s passion for his work is undimmed and he speaks with paternalistic pride of the bats he still creates, smiling as he recalls his unconventional start in the industry in 1988, when he answered a local newspaper advertisement: “Man wanted to work in workshop.” It had been posted by Colin Maddocks, of the famous Melbourne cricket family, who hired the graphic designer on the spot when he walked in to the Richmond workshop and said he “liked the smell of the joint”.
By 1992 he was growing his own willow. A 10-week Churchill fellowship trip to the UK in 1996 allowed him to study many of the willow-growing methods he had basically picked up by himself anyway. With cuttings he grew in country Victoria he would approach farmers in carefully selected areas – often southern New South Wales or Gippsland in country Victoria – and plant his creations in the dead of winter, wherever there was a high moisture-content in the soil.
On average, the buyers of cricket bats are not as sophisticated as they once were. “I’ll be honest with you,” Fisher says, “it’s all price. ‘What’s your best price?’ They couldn’t give a fuck, most people. These things are hand made with a lot of love and a lot of craft and a lot of integrity towards the piece of wood you’re being given.
“It’s not a simple matter of just knocking them out like golf clubs. You’ve actually got to appreciate the weight of the willow, the performance of the willow, the style and the profile.”
Fisher has never used Facebook or Twitter, and pays no attention to the thriving culture of online reviews of his wares – a field of opinion as wide as it is shallow. His bats feature generous warranties and the rare customer who finds fault with his work can bring it back for adjustment. “It’s all one-on-one,” he says. “I’m like a doctor. I don’t jump to conclusions.”
Add to all that the physical toll extracted from the artisan. You have to be naturally strong to make cricket bats, and even then you’ll still weather back pain, hip problems and the kind of acute tennis elbow that often demands days of rest. “I used to shear sheep, so you just get used to the hard work,” Fisher says. His best days for making bats are hot ones – an even 30C or so ideally – when he can work up a light sweat and loosen his battle-weary joints, thus achieving the mobility and rhythm of a man far younger than his 60 years.
Dust masks and ventilation technology have also lessened the health problems experienced by some of his his forebears. At Crockett’s down the road, Fisher says, old-timers like Harry Preston used to risk all sorts of health problems. A non-smoker, Preston eventually died from emphysema that was probably caused by the toxic fumes (“they had no extractors in those days”) from the cane in the bat handles he made.
Proving you’re never too far from being brought full circle by cricket history, Fisher used to grow the cuttings used for his own willow in Daylesford, a former stomping ground of none other than Bob Crockett, the bat-maker and umpire once known as the “chief justice of cricket”, and the man whose pioneering willow plantation produced the first locally made bat to help an Australian to a Test hundred, scored by Warwick Armstrong.
In the act of making a bat Fisher is as effortless and efficient in his movements as a world-class batsman but the ease with which he uses that draw knife is deceptive. Each stroke of the blade is precise but results from a sharp jerking motion that draws upon the entire upper body. Left behind on his work bench are thin willow shavings, which curl like the bows on Christmas presents. On a good day, when it’s warm and he can get on a roll, Fisher turns out as many bats as he can stockpile and secretly hopes he’s not interrupted. Today it’s windy and bitterly cold.
The vogue now is for thicker bats, so Fisher always hopes for the lightest willow possible, allowing him to “leave them bigger”, but he says the impact of size is overstated. “Big bats don’t necessarily play well. It’s very simple: the moisture content in the bat means that they can shape them so they’re big. Also it’s the selection of the willow.
“You can’t make a light bat out of a heavy piece of willow. Maybe 25% of my willow is very light, so you’d go through my bats and find some absolute monsters that are very light. But not everything can be done that way.”
“Making a monster bat doesn’t mean to say it plays well. Warner and those sorts of guys are given the lightest of the lightest and the best of the best. It’s light willow and good-performing willow. He’s walking out with something that if you touch it, it’s going to fly.”
On the contrary, Fisher says, he’ll sometimes hear a shot played on TV and look up when he hears the thud of the ball on a bad piece of willow. This, he suggests, could partly explain the late-career form of Michael Clarke, whose bats Fisher didn’t like the sound of towards the end of the Australian captain’s playing days. “Warner’s bats have this beautiful deep sound but Clarke’s sounded as hard as hell.”
Cricket bats simply evolve according to the trends of the day and always have, Fisher says. As well as thick edges, most contemporary bats have flat faces, a change the bat-maker himself has eschewed to the delight of many customers, who claim a better ability to “target” their strokes with his traditional, gently-curved faces as per the traditional English method employed for the best part of 200 years.
He’s cynical of moves to limit the thickness of bats. “They say the technology has changed,” he scoffs. “Well I’ll tell you now. The three-spring cane handle was developed in England in the 1840s. The willow is the same tree. There’s no technical changes at all.
“Human beings are bigger. Wickets are probably more batsman-friendly and people train a lot harder. They’re seeing the ball so early.”
In a number of respects, both Fisher’s skill as a maker and his integrity as a businessman have left him worse off; owing to his exacting standards of willow selection and the superior skill in their making, his bats perform better but also last longer, so customers often use them for half a decade or more, shrinking their creator’s revenue stream. He refuses to hoodwink unsuspecting buyers into paying top dollar for the lower-grade willow that inevitably crops up in his shipments. Those blocks are turned into half-price “bowling machine bats”, made with just as much skill but by Fisher’s high standards more suitable for use at training.
Throughout it all, the symbiotic relationship between craftsman and material is clear. “I can look at a block of wood with a handle in it and say, ‘I don’t like you at all, I’m not going to enjoy this at all,’” Fisher says, laughing. “And then you can look at others and say, ‘Geez I’m going to enjoy this.’ Some willow you don’t enjoy because you’re not going to sell it, basically.”
He point blank doesn’t understand practitioners in any field who don’t prize the tools of their trade. “Look, I cut trees down so I’ve got Husqvarna and Stihl chainsaws,” he explains. “They never breakdown. They last. I don’t buy cheap stuff.
“If I was a very good batsman I would be sniffing around for a good bat. Pads, gloves and all that gear is not that important. But a cricket bat, you want to know that it’s going to play well and have a warranty, and that it’s going to be made to the balance you want. I don’t want to labour the point, but there’s no appreciation for that.”
No bat-maker in the world could claim a more holistic approach to his work, but the end of an era is nigh. “It is a shame but I’m glad I’m at my age now,” Fisher says of his imminent downsizing. “It’s going to be more one-on-one, and business and customers I enjoy. They get really well looked after and they’re not paying retail prices like in the shops, they’re paying $200 to $300 less.”
“There’s no bat-makers in Australia anymore. There’s bat importers, retailers and wholesalers, but there’s just no appreciation at all.”
Not long before Lachlan Fisher sends me on my way, past a row of his lovingly created bats, I realise I haven’t asked him an obvious question: what sort of cricketer was he himself? “I was a tennis player,” he says, laughing, before detailing the inevitable second coming as an obdurate opening batsman. “I wasn’t great at it but they couldn’t get me out.
“No bat-makers are good cricketers, I can tell you that now.”