A new dawn for Kashmir's cricket bat industry after international debut
From legendary cricketers like Misbah-ul-Haq and Brett Lee to Oman cricketers at the T20 World Cup - international cricketers are waking up to the potential of Kashmiri bats. What does this mean for Kashmir's bat industry?
When Abdul Kabir sold off his farmlands to set up a cricket bat factory in Kashmir's Anantnag district around fifty years ago, many wondered if he was being foolish in taking such a gamble. Many tribulations later, his son Fawzul, now the spokesperson of the 'Cricket Bat Manufacturing Association of Kashmir', may have brought about a new dawn for the Kashmiri willow by giving it an international debut at a World Cup.
The Kabirs are one of many in Kashmir who staked their economic future on the demand for cricket bats in the last 75 years. More than 400 factories in the state are now involved in the business, employing around 30,000 people and having an annual turnover of around Rs 70 crore.
But only one company - 'GR8 Sports', owned by the Kabirs - has been able to send its bats to the international market so far.
"It is our historic achievement that the Kashmiri willow has now appeared on the international stage. After the T20 World Cup last year, our Kashmiri willow was also seen in Oman's domestic league and then in the Legends Cricket League," the 29-year-old Fawzul Kabir told The Bridge.
Considered for years to be vastly inferior to the wood of the English willow - which still holds a near-monopoly over the global cricket bat industry - Kashmiri willow has made a significant foray into international cricket recently. Oman batsmen Bilal Khan and Naseem Khushi used Kashmiri bats at the T20 World Cup. Misbah ul Haq smashed some brisk runs with it at the Legends Cricket League last month.
"It has been a long struggle of eight years to take our products to the international market. Earlier, there was no response and international cricketers did not even look at our product. Before the T20 World Cup, I finally managed to interact with the Oman Cricket Board," said Kabir.
"Now there has been a sudden spurt in orders for Kashmir willow bats from multiple countries and it is becoming difficult to meet the demand. We are working day and night to manufacture as many bats as possible. There are orders from New Zealand, South Africa, UAE, Qatar, Denmark, Scotland. This is the new dawn we have been awaiting for decades," he said.
He also added that some Pakistani international cricketers have approached them for bats but that they cannot afford to have Indian international cricketers on their rolls because of the sponsorship money they would demand.
Change in fortunes for Kashmir's cricket bat industry
The rise in demand for Kashmir willow bats comes immediately after a period of crisis for the industry. In the last four years, twenty five business units of bat manufacturing industries in Halmulla and Sangam area of Bijbehara belt have closed due to lack of demand.
A ray of hope shone through last year when the Indian government said a Geographical Indication (GI) tag would be given to the Kashmiri willow. Around the same time, GR8 Sports managed to do what they had been trying for years - they got international buyers of their products.
Having been supplying their products to various parts of India for years, their main income used to be from sending raw material to companies in other states - particularly Jalandhar- based - who would use their label and market them internationally. The Kashmir willow bat was mostly used by local Kashmiri cricketers only.
But with the entry into international cricket, there is a belief that the fate of Kashmir's willow bat industry has changed. The spurt in demand has encouraged many others to set up new bat manufacturing units, even in places where this was never a tradition.
In state capital Srinagar, where there were only two bat factories one year ago, Bashir Ahmed Lone, 45, is one of those who have jumped on the bandwagon.
"My factory has been supplying hundreds and thousands of bats to Jammu, and later they are being taken to other Indian states," he told The Bridge.
"Srinagar may be known as the state's business hub, but there were only 2 bat factories here till a few days ago. Now people are taking up this business with renewed interest. If the same demand remains, Kashmir's economy will get a big boost," he added.
'No difference between English willow and Kashmir willow'
There have also been some technical innovations to the traditional Kashmiri bat in recent years. For long considered to be good only for tennis ball cricket and amateur cricket, its promotion to the international stage also happened because the owners of 'GR8 Sports' decided they were tired of the ordeal of finding no takers for their products and hired experts who knew what Kashmiri bats were lacking.
Ravi Tiger, 37, an expert who has years of experience in making bats, having made bats for international players like Mahela Jaywardane, said that Kashmiri bat manufacturers didn't have sufficient knowledge of the trade earlier.
"I have been in GR8 Sports, a Kashmir-based leading bat manufacturing industry, for two years. I think I have finally managed to dispel the notion that there is a difference in quality between Kashmir willow and English willow," he told The Bridge.
Saying that the only difference between English-made bats and Kashmir-made bats was in the craftsmanship, he said, "Earlier, the local bat manufacturers were working on habit, making bats for tennis balls. When GR8 bat manufacturing company hired me, we produced a new brand to the world, through which Kashmir willow got recognition at international level."
While the rise of profile for Kashmir's willow in international cricket is welcome, the man behind this success - Fawzul Kabir - himself agrees there is a danger to this too. The sudden spurt of bat factories in Kashmir has also meant indiscriminate cutting down of willow trees, which in turn poses a threat to the future of the industry.
He said, "If deforestation continues to happen at this rate, there won't be any bat industry in Kashmir in 10 years. The trees are being cut in large numbers and no one is going for replantation. We have approached the government and they assured us that they will take up a replantation drive."