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.

North & South - - In This Issue -

James Laver turns out be­spoke cricket bats from his Waipawa work­shop.

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.”

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 Roll­sRoyce 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. GRAEME WIL­SON

Left: 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. Above: Be­spoke bats made from im­ported English wil­low.

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