The Scoop, made famous in the 70s by the Chappell brothers, was as an Anglo-Australian sports marketing phenomenon.
“I tell you what, you’ve hit the bonanza!” says Robert “Swan” Richards as he pulls a pile of photo albums and scrapbooks out of storage containers under a desk in his office. I’ve turned up to Richards’ cricket store in Collingwood, north of Melbourne, in search of clues about the somewhat mythical origins of the Gray Nicolls Scoop, the sword in the stone of all cricket bats and a bona fide object of desire in the cricket world of the 1970s and 80s.
As excited as I am when Richards chances upon the original drawings of the Scoop and handwritten manufacturing notes by the late, legendary bat-maker John Newbery, Richards himself appears even more pleased to have finally hit the jackpot. “This here is gold,” he says with contagious enthusiasm. “They are the original drawings. That’s all John’s writing. You’ve got the originals. You can’t get any better than that. I can tell by the way he wrote. He was a brilliant drawer, John.”
I explain to Richards that the Gray Nicolls Scoop is currently celebrating its 40th birthday but Swan, nicknamed thus on account of an “elegant” string of eight successive ducks during his time as a club cricketer for Glenelg in Adelaide, needs no prompting to recall the time in 1974 that he himself crafted the first example of the famous bat used in international cricket.
Ian Chappell put that one to work during the 1974-75 home Ashes series in Australia.
Soon Chappell’s brother Greg followed suit and many more Australians, catapulting one of cricket’s most novel innovations into the realm of fetish object for cricketers around the world. “There’s a lot of myths about all this,” says Richards as he casts his eyes over match-used Scoops wielded by the likes of the Chappells, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge and Lawrence Rowe, all crafted by with his own hands in Gray Nicolls’ first Australian factory in Mordialloc, south of Melbourne.
The precise details of the Scoop’s invention have always been a little scarce, which seems odd given that cricket’s most famous and fondly-recalled bat was hatched in its most famed production house of bats; the original Gray Nicolls factory in Robertsbridge, Sussex. The company’s roots trace back almost 160 years, when early examples of their bats were used by the likes of WG Grace.
Arriving at the conclusion that cricket’s future would benefit from a splash of colour, Gray Nicolls had pioneered bright red sticker designs in the early 70s, long before the game itself was jolted out of its sepia-toned complacency by World Series Cricket. Swan Richards was right on the spot in 1971 when he took an 18-month crash course in bat-making at Robertsbridge under the master bat craftsmen Len Newbery (“a genius man he was,” says Richards with fondness undimmed by the passing decades) and his son John, then partners in the Gray Nicolls business.
It was during that period, in 1972, that South African golf club engineer Arthur Garner and Cambridge-based golf course designer Barrie Wheeler approached the Gray family with the original idea for a scooped-back bat with perimeter-weighted edges. The concept owed more to golf club design than cricket and the pair’s early advances were rebuffed by a host of other manufacturers.
The Scoop was a bold re-imagination of conventional bat designs of the times and Gray Nicolls picked up on the idea immediately, agreeing to pay Garner and Wheeler royalties on account of their 18-year patent, which expired in 1990. It proved to be money well spent.
Forty years later, Swan Richards has particularly fond recollections of Wheeler and the seemingly-crazy idea that propelled the Gray Nicolls brand to unprecedented levels of success and an unimpeachable place in the hearts of cricket nostalgists.
“He [Wheeler] was a wonderful man. He had this invention and everybody knocked it back but Grays took it and it does work scientifically.” From a wafer-thin prototype crafted by John Newbery grew a cricket phenomenon.
At that point Gray Nicolls’ main competition came from bat brands like SP sports, Duncan Fearnley and Stuart Surridge, whose Viv Richards-endorsed “Jumbo” was the only bat to really compare with the Scoop in the popularity stakes. Even then it didn’t enjoy the same lengthy tenure of popularity.
The Scoop could also be fairly described as an Anglo-Australian sports marketing phenomenon and in Australia, Richards’ role in popularising the bat was pivotal. Once Gray Nicolls had sent him back to establish the company’s Australian manufacturing operation in 1973, it was Richards’ boundless energy and networking with his many friends in cricket that got the early Australian examples of the bats into the hands of the Chappells and other Test stars.
“Just after I left [the UK] they started playing around with these perimeter weighted bats,” says Richards, “and they came here and we really set it alight. The Chappells were always Gray Nicolls people – the easiest players ever to deal with and everything.” By February of 1975 The Cricketer had carried a picture of Chappell showing off the bat and a year later both he and Graham Yallopmodelled it again in contrasting fashions.
Conventional advertising at that point was non-existent and though Richards was making the bat for Test stars as early as 1974, it wasn’t until the 1975-76 that it became available to the public. By that point the buzz surrounding the bat and resultant demand was at fever pitch. As the first summer of Kerry Packer’s breakaway venture rolled around in 1977-78, the Richards-run Australian factory was producing in excess of 35,000 Scoops a year with orders for more. At that point the premium model retailed for $70, well in excess of any other bat on the market but money seemed no object to eager buyers. A comparable St Peter bat that summer retailed between in the $39 to $45 range.
It was the same story in England, where production couldn’t meet demand. In the UK market, the bat was available for purchase as early as the 1974 season, when Barry Richards used it to great effect in the county championship. By 1976, 34% of surveyed English professionals were using the bats and the number was closer to 50% in Australia. The Scoop was everywhere and Gray Nicolls had become the brand of choice for pros and amateurs alike.
With the biggest names in cricket acting as walking billboards for the brand, marketing activities were not vital to success but still illustrative of the growing strength of the Scoop brand. Early British advertising campaigns from 1977 didn’t even show the bat’s famous backside and featured a staid black-and-white image of WG Grace. The Technicolor explosion of World Series Cricket probably provided the perfect storm to nudge things along a little and by 1979, full-page colour ads for the Scoop adorned almost every cricket magazine.
Some advertising campaigns highlighted endorsements of the likes of Greg Chappell and David Gower, others presented the bat as a precious artifact within an art gallery montage. The explosion of colour and the radical design features proved irresistible to cricket enthusiasts.
Soon came “Twin Scoops”, the Chappell “GC Master” model and, by the late 1980s, the Dynadrive. The latter precipitated the end of the Scoop’s reign atop the Christmas wishlists after a 15-year run of unparalleled success. There was also a brief early-90s renaissance when Brian Lara used a Scoop to post his world record Test score of 375.
At Gray Nicolls’ newer and more plush current headquarters in Cheltenham, only a short drive from that first factory in Mordialloc, there is still great affection for the Scoop and its place in the company’s history. Production manager and master bat-maker to the company’s current stable of international stars, Stuart Kranzbuhler, has been with the company for 21 years and still gets asked about the Scoop.
“Everyone’s grandfather or father had a Scoop,” he says. “Whenever I mention where I work, people straight away people say, ‘Oh, I remember the Scoop or Single Scoop or the Twin Scoop.’ Every single person I meet says that.”
That affection for the bat among amateur cricketers was both immediate and long-lasting. Vintage 70s era models now sell in excess of their original retail price on eBay and the demand that came from that nostalgia market gave Gray Nicolls the impetus to re-introduce the heritage brand when they re-launched a new model Scoop three years back, retro sticker designs and all.
Cricket writer and historian Gideon Haigh has such a fondness for the Scoop than a “Hookes Hurricane” model now takes pride of place on his custom-made “bat rack” at home, much as a treasured painting or sculpture would for others.
“The first bat I saved up for and bought was a GN500 from Jarmans in Geelong when I was 14,” says Haigh. “Why? Because it looked cool – hell, I already had SP batting mitts too.” Haigh used the bat well into his 20s, upon which time it perished during a net session. “In fact, it broke so badly that there was no point keeping the shards,” he recalls. “To fill the gap in my bat rack where it should have been, I recently inherited a mint condition Hookes Hurricane, which brings to the display a certain retro chic. The Scoop and its variants are design classics – never out of fashion.” Quite.
Though the fundamentals of bat-making remain the same as they did when Garner, Wheeler and John Newbery pioneered the Scoop, the re-released bat is as good an example as any of the marked evolution in bat profiles. The first perimeter-weighted Scoops featured edges with a thickness that rarely exceeded a range of 10mm to 13 mm.
By comparison the current model looks like it’s on steroids and features edges as thick as 45mm.
Explaining the original science behind the Scoop’s perimeter-weighting, Kranzbuhler says: “The whole theory of it was to widen the sweet spot, so effectively it did exactly that by having thicker edges so it was more forgiving when you didn’t hit the centre but what it tended to do was take a bit of the power from higher up the blade because it was scooped out.
“To get a bat that was as forgiving back then it would have been way too heavy to use which is why they went down that path. They no longer had to hit it dead centre. It still had to be hit in the middle but it could be slightly off and still hit pretty well.”
Gray Nicolls sales manager Greg Smyth, himself a veteran of almost 30 years with the company, says that the ongoing appeal of the bat in the eyes of both older and younger cricketers alike is remarkable. “Not many bats last that long,” he says before noting that the re-release was a surprising sales hit in the Indian market, where it was never originally available. Kranzbuhler and Smyth both still speak with passion and fondness for every bat Gray Nicolls manufactures. Now they’re produced both domestically and in the exact replica of their Cheltenham factory in India, whose bat-makers Kranzbuhler trains.
Back in the mid-70s, the Scoop wasn’t the only radical idea that the heritage brand considered putting into production. An alternative design had a series of round gouges in the back. “They never worked and it looked ugly,” says Swan Richards. “The Scoop was beautifully curved. If you see an original it looked like it didn’t work but John Newbery kept working on it and kept refining it.”
Garner and Wheeler’s idea wasn’t without its faults, to be fair. Early attempts at crafting the bat were a trial and error process with John Newbery and another English bat-maker, Bill Lucking, constantly honing the measurements to avoid breaks.
“They were splitting straight down the middle because there was no guts,” explains Richards. “As soon as we played around with it and got it right we never changed it. The only thing we changed was the colour of the Scoop. The Chappell one was red, I can remember it quite well.”
Richards walks me through to his “other office”, where walls and shelving literally groan under the weight of a lifetime of collected cricket objects and ephemera. The more precious and valuable items, including bats used by Murdoch, Darling, Trumper and Armstrong having long-since been donated to the MCC museum. Each bat that’s passed through Richards’ hands or disappeared off his workshop bench puts him in a truly unique position, physically linked to the far-flung corners of Test cricket history in Australia through his craftsmanship and love for bats.
At one point he pulls out a “Hookes Hurricane” model Scoop, named in honour of one of South Australia’s favourite cricket sons and a man with whom Richards’ involvement dated back to his playing days in Adelaide grade cricket. “That came in the early 80s. I built it, that one,” he says with modest pride.
At the mention of the Hookes Hurricane, Greg Smyth had laughed and recalled the time in 1983 that his former Gray Nicolls colleague Tony Fletcher got a panicked morning call from Hookes, who’d broken a bat and was in urgent need of a replacement for a Sheffield Shield game about to start at the Junction Oval. Fletcher bombed down the Nepean Highway with a brand new bat that was yet to be knocked-in, parked his car and ran through the ground entrance just in time to see Hookes about to make his way through the gate to bat.
Turning around upon registering Fletcher’s panicked call, Hookes quickly removed the new blade from its plastic wrapper, strode onto the ground and promptly blasted the Victorians to the tune of 193 from 147 deliveries. Hookes’ first hundred came from 75 balls and in 91 minutes of brutal hitting. By the end of the knock the 3lb 1oz Hookes Hurricane Scoop had to be swapped for a lighter model to ease the strain on his weary arms. “This was Hookes at his dazzling, incomparable best,” noted Mike Coward. The bat’s moniker seemed more apt than ever.
Swan Richards says the involvement of both Hookes and the Chappells was central to the raging success of the Scoop and its one-time place on the Christmas wish list of every eager cricketer in Australia. Though he’s been off the Gray Nicolls payroll for 25 years, Richards still talks with great affection for the company, its history and the bats it still makes. “It’s not a plug, it’s the truth,” he says. “They’re the world’s best.”