From willow to wicket: Behold the making of cricket bats, from clefts to rubber casing

J.S. Wright & Sons annually produces more than 400,000 clefts: slices of wood in the rough shape of a cricket bat blade. Each cleft is graded, stacked, then dried for three months. The clefts are then shipped to all corners of the world to become bats. Kate Peters for ESPN

Not much has changed at J.S. Wright & Sons since 1894, when a man on the hunt for willow trees approached Jessie Wright at a local pub, hoping Wright would help make bats for cricketer W.G. Grace. Wright sold a few trees from his 20 acres in the English countryside to Montague Odd, who carved them into bats and charged Grace -- the Babe Ruth of cricket -- a guinea for each one, or about $150 in today's dollars. Wright sensed an opportunity and started a business out of his back garden. One hundred twenty-five years later, that company, helmed by his great-grandson Oliver Wright, is the largest supplier of cricket bat willow in the world. Most of the bats wielded during this summer's Cricket World Cup got their start at J.S. Wright & Sons. While sports equipment is largely mass-produced, cricket bats are still crafted by hand. Each one comes from a tree that is grown for 20 years -- then cut, dried and graded. The process is a self-sustaining one: J.S. Wright & Sons plants 20,000 trees to replace the 8,000 it fells annually. It's essentially the same method that Jessie Wright perfected back in 1894, proving that when it comes to guarding the wicket, there's no substitute for tradition. -TOM HAMILTON

A cricket bat is composed of four key parts: the blade, the shoulder, the handle and the splice, which is a V-shaped woodworking joint that increases the bat's overall strength.

Most clefts are sent to India or Pakistan, but this one traveled 180 miles north from Essex to Warrior Cricket in Wakefield, England, where bat maker Ian Sampson meticulously sands and trims the wood to its bespoke specifications. Sampson creates an average of two bats a day. By the sound of cricket ball on wood, he decides when the bat is ready for the last step.

After taping the handle, Sampson applies stickers to the edges and face of the bat, then adds the final touch: the rubber casing used on the handle, which future batsmen will clutch as they try to nail slog sweeps and unleash pulls. The bats range from about $300 to $1,700.