December 15, 2014
Summer is a special time for Australians. Cricket time.
Whether facing a Pakistani pace-man on a troublesome deck, or simply a neighbour’s nippy fast mediums, darting just short of a length off a suburban street or driveway, Australians share a close affiliation with cricket in summer.
However, one man can perhaps claim a closer connection to cricket than most.
Born in Lobethal in 1938, 76-year old Bob Fielke is a member of a unique cricking brotherhood – he is one of only six people in South Australia to have made handcrafted cricket bats.
Like the woodsmiths at Yalumba who have a long and proud history of handcrafting oak barrels, Bob and his brethren have been handcrafting cricket bats in South Australia for around 120 years.
A teacher turned cricket bat maker and historian, Bob proudly recounts how his grandfather Paul Fielke fell in love with cricket.
“Cricket’s in our blood. My grandfather learnt how to play cricket in the front bar of the Mt Torrens pub,” Bob laughs.
“He would hang around the place like a bar fly, not to drink, but to sit and talk with the local members of the Mt Torrens cricket club to learn more about the game he so desperately wanted to play.
“I guess, like most Australians, he fell in love with not only the game but the rich culture it brings with it.”
Bob was teaching in Whyalla when his father Laurie took over the famous Kumnick family cricket bat-making business in 1965.
“Dad started out refurbishing cricket bats, but quickly began manufacturing them from scratch, bringing Fielke cricket bats to life,” he says.
“When Dad died in 1987, my brother Ron took over the business and I followed shortly after in 1994.
“I always tell people I’ve never actually retired from teaching, I’m just giving something else a go for awhile.”
According to Bob, there are 300 varieties of willow in the world and only one chosen as the best for cricket bats – and of these only the female tree can be used.
“The best cricket bats in the world are made from Salix Alba Caerulea or white willow,” Bob says.
“People need to understand that a good bat will be made of grade one willow, usually have between four to five grains and could cost around $450.
“There’s more to a good quality cricket bat than just fancy stickers. Real batsmen want bats that play well and last a long time.”
Until 2013, Bob proudly handcrafted custom-made cricket bats from his humble workshop, a reconditioned five by nine metre tin shed in his backyard, for dozens of clients who remain nameless.
"I didn't do it for the publicity – I did it because I love cricket," he said.
But even though he has hung up his bat he has continued his love of history and found a new passion in following the Fielke family lineage, writing a series of books titled The Fielke Cradle, which traces his ancestry back to the 1800s when his German forefathers fled floods, famine and compulsory military service to start a new life in South Australia.
Like cricket bat making Bob is just "giving retirement a go for awhile" – until a nice lump of white willow comes along.