Sachin Tendulkar drives Kashmir's bat-making industry back to form

The cricket legend’s support is helping an industry threatened by the depletion of willow plantations

A worker at a bat-manufacturing factory in Halmulla village in south Kashmir. Umer Asif for The National
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Thousands of Kashmiri willow clefts are stacked neatly and left to dry under the open sky along the sides of a motorway in southern Kashmir, signalling to travellers that they are passing through a bat-manufacturing centre.

These roadside villages are home to nearly 400 cricket-bat manufacturing and sale units, producing nearly one million bats each year that are sold in domestic and international markets.

At one of these villages, Halmulla, Fawzul Kabir, a second-generation bat manufacturer, told The National that the industry could soon reach a point of crisis, as willow plantations across large stretches of Kashmir’s wetlands are fast depleting. He believes the current reserves might last for only another five years.

“It takes 10 to 15 years for the willow to mature, so we may now be on a verge of extinction as the major reserves are not available,” said Mr Kabir, who is also the vice president of the Bat Manufacturers Association of Kashmir.

The city's bat industry has faced several challenges in the past, particularly a lack of marketing and branding knowledge by the makers. “We were losing in the market because we had no knowledge of branding and we were selling our product for peanuts,” he said.

But the use of the internet had a positive effect.

“Internet provided a sea of information. We realised that our product is not only unique but we also came to understand the right dimensions, size and grain of a bat,” Mr Kabir said.

The bats he manufactures became the first to debut in international cricket matches from the region in a game between Oman and the UAE in October 2021.

A star visit

Lat month, Sachin Tendulkar made a stopover and visited one of the bat-manufacturing factories in Kashmir. His visit created a social media storm and turned this stretch of motorway into a site of reverence for cricket enthusiasts from all over India.

Javed Ahmad Parray, the owner of the factory visited by Tendulkar, has enjoyed a huge surge of interest since then.

“There has been a huge increase in demand since his visit … every day I receive hundreds of calls from people enquiring about Kashmir willow bats,” said Mr Parray, who has been in the bat-making business for two decades.

While explaining the response to Tendulkar’s visit, a taxi carrying a couple from Gujarat stopped outside his factory.

Anil Desai, 45, a businessman and a cricket fan from India’s western coastal state, was initially reluctant to come to Kashmir but changed his mind after Tendulkar’s visit.

“The first bat given to me was by my sister and it was a Kashmir willow bat,” Tendulkar wrote on Facebook as he shared the video of his stopover at Mr Parray’s manufacturing unit.

“I decided that moment that I should visit Kashmir and definitely visit these factories,” Mr Desai said, as he took photos of the bat-manufacturing factory where workers explained the process of bat making.

The process takes a year. Huge logs of Kashmiri willow are first sawed into clefts, which are left to dry naturally through several seasons. The handles are then fitted into the blades, polished, and sent to sale outlets.

The bat manufacturing in Kashmir – along a small stretch of motorway that was designated an industrial zone for cricket-bat manufacturing units in 2019 – provides direct and indirect livelihood to nearly 200,000 people.

Mr Parray said tourists, such as Mr Desai, have been frequenting these villages in recent weeks. “We were making good business but I have never witnessed such a rush. It is like a festival here these days,” he said.

Mr Kabir said Tendulkar’s visit has definitely given a boost to the industry. “Sachin is the god of cricket and when he picks the Kashmiri willow in his hand, it sends a strong message.”

Kashmir’s bat-manufacturing industry traces its roots to the partition year of 1947 when the supply of willow from the region to manufacturing units in Sialkot, Pakistan, had stopped. It left willow cultivators out of work, so they decided to set up their own manufacturing units, Mr Kabir said.

The first boom in demand for Kashmir willow bats was in 1983 when India won the cricket world cup, bringing the game to even greater prominence in the cricket-mad country. A few years later, more than 100 new manufacturing units were set up in southern Kashmir.

Updated: March 31, 2024, 12:26 PM