After nearly 30 years away, the Surridges are back in the bat-making game
The bat. Less a piece of wood, more a member of the family. Often it’s your mum, getting you out of trouble. Sometimes it’s a sibling pressing all your buttons. But occasionally, just occasionally, it can be your partner, an extension of you, finishing your cricket shot sentences for you, loving you not in spite of your flaws, but because of them.
It’s a unique relationship. This is true for no-one more than Charley Surridge, great great grand-daughter of Percy, great niece of Stuart, daughter of John. Having the founder of a 150-year-old brand, the captain that won the County Championship five times in a row, and the creator of one of the most famous bats to have graced the game, might seem daunting to some, but Surridge is embracing the challenge head on.
Swannack is her new company, getting the old Surridge band back together after almost a 30 year hiatus. Five generations after Percy Stuart Surridge created Stuart Surridge & Co. Ltd., Swannack is launching three bats, all designed by Charley’s father John, best known for creating the SS Turbo, latterly the SS 333, for Graham Gooch.
Fast forward to the late 1980s and the company was sold to Slazenger shortly after Surridge was born, the victim of a tough economy. Charley’s father John and his cousin Tiger were in charge but were forced to let the company go. For John, the divorce was particularly protracted and painful.
“It was a really tough time for him” Surridge explains, “as he was the one who had to break the news to those let go from the factory. He wouldn’t have sold if he didn’t have to, but he couldn’t let the shareholders down. Slazenger kept him on as he was the one with the specialist willow-buying knowledge, but they used then dropped him.”
All John had known was bat making. From the age of 14 during school holidays he had helped in the family lumber yard, going out with the felling gangs, but suddenly he was the jilted ex-lover. He retreated to his cleft making business, supplying a small selection of other bat makers, but rarely spoke of commercial matters again.
This is why bats and bat making had always been a distant cousin for a young Charley. It took a chance encounter in a NatWest branch at age 13 for the bat bug lying dormant in her blood to activate. After a cashier asked if the ‘Surridge’ on her junior paying-in book was related to the bats of the same name, she began to look into her heritage more.
The rich history she found inspired her. Percy Surridge used to help repair cricket bats before deciding that he could do so better, started making his own bats from the willow trees that grew in his back garden, and started selling them in the local town. Founded in 1867, making it one of the oldest bat marques, the brand grew as it was passed down the generations, becoming a byword for quality in the bat-making industry. In 1893, Percy patented the first reinforced toe on a bat, and WG Grace adopted the Surridge bat in 1900.
Through a great deal of nagging from his daughter, John found that bat making was still in his DNA. “Over the years I’d helped out at the yard for the clefts and found the old bats at home” Surridge Jr remembers, “and I kept asking him ‘why don’t you make bats again’ but he always said it wasn’t the right time.”
Until one day in the The Ship pub in Wandsworth, that is. “We were talking about bats” Surridge says excitedly, “I asked him again and he suddenly said ‘yes’!”. Serendipity took over and plans developed swiftly from there. By chance, a branding agency had been in touch looking to access the Surridge contact book, so they were swiftly brought on board.
It turned out that Surridge Sr had been working on a few ideas on the sly, updating the old SS models for the demands of the modern game, so prototypes came along soon after. Now Swannack is ready to release its three new bat models into the wild.
The Caerus is a bottom-heavy model, with a low sweet spot, ideal for the power hitting required by the T20 game. The Apollo is a good multi-purpose model for the all-round player. The Kratos is a lighter model with big edges in keeping with the prevailing preference for the modern wristy cricketer looking for high bat speed.
Swannack prioritises quality, using only the top three grades of willow, but, more than anything else, seeks to personalise its blades for the individual player. “Dad is of the opinion that you shouldn’t care what everyone else is playing with” Surridge asserts. “The bat should support your individual style of play and showcase your technique. Every cricketer is unique.”
Already one of the few makers to manufacture from tree to bat, Swannack has its own unique quality. “We are decidedly locally-made” Surridge says proudly. “Willow, machining, grips, labels; it’s all British.” Whereas others source willow from Kashmir and send clefts for finishing in Punjab, Swannack hand-picks and grades its own willow, managing the process from end to end, meaning that bats can be tailor made and tested easily at every stage by the buyer.
“Ultimately we are looking to make timeless bats with an assurance of quality that is needed for such a personal item.”
Swannack’s ambitions are worthy but set a high bar for success. Surridge is aware that the task will not be easy but is ready for the challenge. “Our biggest hurdle is finding people who are willing to take a risk. We are not going down the retail route; players can only buy direct. Nor do we have the millions required to pay Test players to use our bats.”
“It’s about trust, but dad has a record you can trust and we are picking up where he left off his unfinished business in the ‘80s. He’s like a new entrepreneur, he’s so excited and passionate again!”
For manufacturers, cricket is a marginally profitable business at best, but this is not what drives Swannack forward. Surridge showcases her relics from the family archive with immense pride. The line up of bats looks like a cricketing equipment version of an ‘evolution of man’ novelty t-shirt; from the shepherd’s crook shape of an early model, via a bat used by WG Grace, through to the famous Gooch example. One sports a tag it hand-written by Peter May stating “this is the best bat I have ever used”.
“The goal for us is, via Swannack, to return the Surridge name to the top of the bat-making tree. Size doesn’t matter; a great reputation backed by a loyal customer base is what drives us on. One day I want a kid whose first bat was a Swannack to come back and buy for their own child.”
Nowadays, Surridge Sports hasn’t made a bat for years and Slazenger is just another adopted child of Sports Direct. On the other hand, Swannack is the heir apparent to five generations of bat-making prowess. In going back to the future, Swannack may just be onto something. As Michael J Fox himself said “family is not an important thing; it’s everything”
You can support Swannack on Kickstarter here