By Harshvardhan Singh
Nothing unites India more than Cricket. The author himself a batsman in a State Cricket team before joining Armed Forces, was ecstatic to find his fave Cricket Bat "Made in Kashmir" while he was posted near Wular Lake. Every Holidays he takes back home cricket bats for cricket enthusiast children living in his society at Pune. Harshvardhan elaborates on everything we need to know about Cricket bats 'Made in Kashmir'.
NH-44, the highway to the roof of the world, has sights like no other. One of these is seen before the saffron fields of Pampore. Soon after descending into the valley, tourists can see systematically arranged towers of wood, erected at some places on the ground and at some places on top of houses/ shops. They intrigue a lot of tourists and compel them to stop and enquire. For most, it is a revelation that cricket bats used across half the world are made in Kashmir from the famous Kashmir Willow.
Genesis of Kashmir Willow
During pre-independence era, the industry existed in Sialkot, Pakistan primarily. Among others, it provided for demand of cricket bats from British officers stationed in India. Post partition, skilled artisans shifted to India and made their home in places like Jalandhar and Meerut. Though these two cities still get identified as centres for sports goods manufacturing in the country, Kashmir’s connection with bat-making is lesser known.
Be it times before or after partition, the raw material for the above famous centres was provided from Kashmir only. Realizing this potential, a government sports manufacturing factory named ‘Kashmir Willow’ was established at Pampore. Later, it was shifted to Jammu as the vagaries of the weather didn’t allow work throughout the year.
Types Of Willow
Normally, two types of willows are used commonly for manufacturing cricket bats, the White Willow and the Kashmir Willow. Willow is the only wood suitable for bats as it possesses both the strength and density that is needed in a cricket bat. The visible difference by which you can easily differentiate a white willow and Kashmir willow bats is their colour. White willows, as the name suggests, are whiter in color, while the Kashmir willows are a shade darker. A cricket bat made from Kashmiri Willow lasts longer than one made from an English Willow and hence it is preferred over the latter.
Popularity of Cricket Regional & National
The popularity of cricket all across India is a well known phenomenon. The game has successfully united people across the length and breadth of the country. We have die hard cricket fans that can go to any extent in supporting their team, be it in the international arena or the domestic Indian Premier League. The game cuts across all age groups. On holidays and Sundays, empty fields and vacant plots all over the country turn into mini-stadiums where the local champions battle out against each other.
In the valley too, cricket is enjoyed by all. How serious is the cricketing frenzy, can be judged from the sight of teams that can be seen playing all day in full cricket gear and their distinct uniforms. Blissfully unaware, each one of the cricket enthusiasts in India or around the world owe their pleasure to the hardworking people of Kashmir who supply happiness to them in the form of cricket bats.
The two types of cricket bats - the seasoned cricket bat and the tennis ball cricket bat, are manufactured these days. While the former is used to play with a leather ball, the latter is used for playing with plastic, rubber or tennis ball; something which is more popular in India. Cricket bats made here are exported to all countries where the sport is already famous or is gaining ground. Countries like Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka constitute majority of the demand. Winter is when the manufacturers in Kashmir are the busiest since the demand is at its highest, mostly due to the conducive weather of the season. Big manufacturers produce up to 5000 bats a month. The most expensive bat costs Rs 1500 here, but once they reach the retail outlets in big cities, they are generally sold for approximately Rs 5000-6000, maybe even more. Like all its peripheral industries, the success of the IPL has had a positive effect on the cricket bat manufacturing industry as well. The collective annual turnover of both registered and unregistered manufacturers is around 10 Crores, if not more.
But, all is not as simple as it appears. Like any other industry, the problems faced by the people of the industry are many folds. First and foremost, manufacturing of cricket bats is a family business passed on from generation to generation. Though the teachings of their forefathers never get old, the equipment does. Many of the bat manufacturers are operating outdated and unreliable equipment out of dilapidated factories inherited by them from their ancestors. Secondly, the Kashmiri Willow tree should be around 15-20 years old and approximately 34 inches in girth to be ready for extracting willows used for making cricket bats. The early maturing age of Russian Poplar or the Apple tree is much lesser and thus people prefer planting them on their land as the returns can be reaped in only 4-5 years. This has made the raw material more expensive and the quality poorer as Russian Poplar wood is being used instead of willow. Of Course, the process doesn’t end at simply growing the willow. It includes sawing, grading, seasoning (open air/kiln seasoning), machining, blade pressing, handle fitting, hand shaping, sanding, binding, polishing and finally rubber grip application and labeling. All of these demand mastery in trade as well as availability of resources. Specialist machinery, electricity, water, fuel etc. are some basic requirements which are often hindered due to the turmoil in the valley. The unrest caused by the terrorist activities and the numerous calls for shutdowns by the separatist leaders further reduces the window for business as neither the workers nor the customers come. The industry owners from other states, who normally acquire unprocessed willows in bulk, fear damage to their property.
And as if the above was not enough, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing scenario has hit the industry hard. Dearth of labour, transportation facilities and above all demand, have all contributed in aggravating their woes. Since all sporting action remains discontinued due to the pandemic, sale of willows to other parts of the country or abroad have also reduced.
In spite of all these problems, there is light at the end of the tunnel. With Unlock programs of the administration, the restrictions are lifting and people are returning to work. The sales and distribution are also improving. The recent announcement from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) that IPL shall be organised from 19th Sept to 8th Nov 2020 in the United Arab Emirates, has been received with a lot of enthusiasm. It has given a new hope to the people to bat their woes away.
Support from the government, which has numerous schemes under the Micro, Small, Medium Enterprises (MSME), is slowly but steadily increasing after abrogation of Article 370. The manufacturers are now getting an impetus to acquire licenses and directly export their products without the involvement of third party buyers. More such measures for the cricket bat industry as well as other Industries are giving a new lease of hope to the people. More capital is also likely to flow in with businessmen from across the country getting a chance to invest in industries here.
Despite various impediments, the future looks bright. But none of the development would be possible without requisite support from the government. The schemes of the Central Govt which couldn’t get proper implementation in the region are likely to bear fruit in the coming days. It would be a great morale booster for the industry if the more renowned cricket bat manufacturers set up their factories in the valley and their bats are flaunted by top cricketers across the world.
Reiterating once again - 'Nothing unites India more than Cricket'. With the talent in Kashmir Valley I can assure, Next Generation's Top Batsmen are gearing up in Kashmir.