An Artist is Born – a 2001 article on Salix
An artist is born by Simon O’Hagan
Wisden Cricket Monthly, April 2001
Simon O’Hagan meets the master craftsman who is keeping a grand old tradition alive. Andrew Kember made his first cricket bat when he was 12. For the handle he cut up and glued together some of his father’s draining rods. He made a grip using rubber from a wellington boot. And the blade? He just went out and chopped down a willow tree. There were plenty to choose from on the fruit farm in Kent where he grew up, and it was only the loss of the draining rods that really bothered his father. He rarely got bad tempered, Andrew recalls, but he was a bit miffed about that.
Even then, it was clear where Andrew was heading. Now, at 33, he runs the small but prestigious Salix company, making handcrafted bats whose users include some of the world’s best players. In an industry dominated by such names as Slazenger, Gunn & Moore and Gray-Nicolls, the impact that Salix bats have made at the highest level is out of all proportion to the scale of the operation from which they emerge.
Salix – Latin for willow – has its headquarters in a converted farm building in the village of Langley Heath near Maidstone, Kent, and the product is the result of immense skill and devotion. Tell Andrew what you want, go away for a few weeks, and you will return to be presented with something close to a work of art.
Not that Andrew is hung up on purism. “I think the big companies make excellent bats,” he says. “You cannot make a bat without some sort of machinery.”The people I object to are those who set up by jumping on the hand-made bandwagon. There are some rogues out there, and hand-made doesn’t mean anything if you don’t really understand the wood. I grew up with it. I learnt what willow could do, what to expect of it, and the essence of how tools work. What I want to protect is an industry in which cricket bat-making is connected to its past.”
Andrew’s sense of history is tied up with the apprenticeship he served under another great bat-maker, John Newbery. Newbery died in 1989, and the following year Andrew helped establish Salix in the same spirit. He believes that by giving the small manufacturer a good name, the two firms benefit each other.If you think you haven’t noticed many Salix bats, there is a good reason – Andrew is in no position to go out and fix his own sponsorship deals. He does, however, have the official endorsement of the Kent captain Matthew Fleming (“Salix bats are the best”), and representatives of other international players are frequently on the phone with orders.
Andrew faces the dilemma of any small businessman whose firm is going places. The interest is there for him to double production to 4,000 bats a year. But expansion would mean losing touch with the thing that he loves most, which is making bats – finding the best willow, getting to work on it with his lathe, achieving the required weight and balance, sanding it to a silky finish. With a staff of only four – a few more in the summer – he has to put in the hours seven days a week. Last year he played cricket only once.
Andrew has just extended his workshop and has plans to display some of the historic bats he has acquired over the years. He has a bat dating back to the 19th century, and others from eras since then. And what about the bat Andrew made when he was 12? “I remember I took it with me when I went for my interview with John Newbery. But I’m not sure what happened to it after that.”