Kashmir bat industry hits its sweet spot after 102 years

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The first stage: Willow is cut to size and stacked at a factory in Sangam village in Anantnag district of Kashmir.

The first stage: Willow is cut to size and stacked at a factory in Sangam village in Anantnag district of Kashmir.
| Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

For the first time in the 102 years of its manufacturing history in the Valley, the Kashmir bat will be used in 50-over World Cup matches. At the International Cricket Council (ICC) Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023, hosted by India and which begins on Oct 5, the Afghan team will be wielding the Kashmir willow.

“Players of Team Afghanistan have our bats in the tournament this year. At least five Afghan players have already used them in the past,” says Fawzul Kabiir, 31, managing director of the GR8 cricket bat company.

Displaying grand posters of international cricketers like Virat Kohli and Babar Azam, bat manufacturing units and their outlets, dotting the national highway in south Kashmir, are in a celebratory mood this year.

In November last year, the bats tasted success when UAE player Junaid Siddique hit Sri Lankan bowler Dushmantha Chameera to a 109-metre six, making it the longest six in the T20 World Cup, and bringing the bats manufactured by their company into international focus.

The female cultivar of white willow is considered the best for bats. Each cleft is expertly shaped, especially the middle spot and the toe blade.

The female cultivar of white willow is considered the best for bats. Each cleft is expertly shaped, especially the middle spot and the toe blade.
| Photo Credit:
NISSAR AHMAD

“I always dreamt of seeing Kashmir bats at the global level. The longest six proved good for us. Over one lakh bats were exported after the World Cup appearance last year,” Mr. Kabiir says.

Kashmir’s bat industry is mainly concentrated in south Kashmir’s Pulwama and Anantnag districts, with willow groves growing in the wet highlands nearby. Around 200 bat manufacturing units engage around 50,000 people for production. The female cultivar of white willow is considered the best for bats. Each cleft is expertly shaped, especially the middle spot and the toe blade. A bat weighing around 2 pounds and 7 ounces (a little over 1 kg) remains the most preferred bat globally.

“Kashmir exported around 1.35 lakh bats in 2022. Our company manufactures around 3,000 bats a month these days because the demand is up,” says a visibly pleased Mr. Kabiir. His company was the first in Kashmir to get a certification from the ICC in 2021 and also bagged a contract to supply bats to the Oman Cricket Board the same year. As per official government estimates, 1.5 million bats are manufactured in Kashmir annually.

Khalid Mir, another bat manufacturer in Anantnag’s Khanabal town, has hired extra hands to meet the demand. The World Cup has already propelled cricket fever in Kashmir. “We work in double shifts to meet the demand which has gone up from 500 bats a month to over 1,500,” says Mr. Mir.

Owners of several other bat manufacturing units also said the demand is up by three times this year. They have received bulk orders from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Delhi, and Kerala.

“Customized bats are becoming popular among domestic cricketers now. A player gets to choose the weight and position of sweet spots of a bat,” Mr. Mir explains.

Quality check: Every bat undergoes a rigorous quality check. A bat weighing around 2 pounds, 7 ounces (a little over 1 kg) remains the most preferred globally.

Quality check: Every bat undergoes a rigorous quality check. A bat weighing around 2 pounds, 7 ounces (a little over 1 kg) remains the most preferred globally.
| Photo Credit:
NISSAR AHMAD

However, Mr. Kabiir says the bat’s sweet spot remains popular at the lower middle in Asia because of the pitch condition, as the ball remains low. “In the West, the sweet spot is higher up because of bouncy tracks,” he adds.

It was industrialist Allah Baksh from Pakistan who established the first cricket bat unit in Bijbehara’s Halmulla area in the 19th Century. It achieved the status of small scale industry by 1922. Bat clefts would be ferried through the Jhelum Valley road, getting its finishing touch at Sialkot in Pakistan. Then, they were used by the British, who introduced the game to India.

“However, it was the English willow that remained the preferred bat among international players because we could not get the science and the specifications right. But I see a great future for Kashmir bats with new technology,” says Mr. Kabiir, who also supplied bats to the Sri Lanka and the Bangladesh teams in 2022.

Around 75,000 willow trees are cut annually to keep the bat industry in the State ticking. Manufacturers say the raw material is depleting now. “Only around 3,000 trees were available this season. The government needs to promote organised willow farming and maintain the supply as per the demand,” Mr. Kabiir said. The felling of willow starts in autumn and stops by spring in Kashmir. A tree that attains a girth of 58 inches (147 cm or so) is felled for the bat industry.

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