A few kilometres after they had passed the saffron fields of Pampur, the soldiers perched atop the dozen camouflage-clad army trucks, trodding purposefully along the Jammu-Srinagar Highway, would have seen the first of many billboards sporting pictures of Virat Kohli and Shahid Afridi. It must have been a surreal sight for the first-timers among them — dozens after dozens of shops selling cricket bats in the middle of the vast nowhere that is rural Kashmir.
The more than 100 families along the Halmulla-Sangam stretch of the Jammu-Srinagar highway, and the half-a-lakh people who work with them, make up India's largest cricket-bat-manufacturing belt. One manufacturer estimates that they still account for 90 per cent of India's cricket bats — whether it be through the fully-formed products that they ship or through the willow clefts carved here and taken elsewhere for finishing touches.
When most of these factories were established decades ago, they were a sure-shot route to financial stability, a plan that married the willow trees growing in abundance in the Vale of Kashmir to the cricket frenzy that was engulfing mainland India in the late eighties and early nineties. But now, under attack from all sides, these bat-manufacturers, many of them operating rusty equipment out of broken-down factories entrusted to them by fathers and grandfathers, are gasping for breath.
Shutdowns and curfews
Mehraj sits on a plastic chair and looks on as the army trucks pass on by. He is guarding a big wooden door that, like most doors in South Kashmir on the day, is firmly slammed shut. At first, he feigns disinterest in striking up a conversation, perhaps wary that it may broach upon some forbidden subject. But as soon as it is made clear that the questions would be about Dawn Sports, the cricket bat factory that he inherited from his father, he loosens up a bit. He reluctantly walks up, opens the door ever so slightly and gives the outside world a peek into his private kingdom. Inside, floating alongside blocks of chopped-up wood in a sea of sawdust are hundreds of cricket bats, of various shapes and sizes and in different stages of their birth. Some had barely evolved from the log of wood they had been not so long ago. Some were only a grip and a sticker away from belonging on a cricket field.
But none of them were going to complete birthing pangs that day. The factory was shut, Mehraj explains, because none of his workers had turned up. The reason was an incident that happened in the outskirts of Srinagar in the wee hours of the day before, when two militants had been gunned down by the army. One of them — Sabzar Ahmad Sofi, who reportedly was a PhD scholar preparing for the Civil Services exam before he took up a gun — hailed from Sangam in South Kashmir, not far from where Mehraj's factory was. Everything had been shut down in that area since news first filtered in of the encounter.
Shutdowns are the norm in Kashmir — all it takes is for separatists to take offence to something the army does. But for Mehraj and his fellow bat-manufacturers, it means switching off their machines and looking on as blocks of willow clefts, that they've arranged on the roofs of their houses, dry in the feeble winter sun. In the meantime, production schedules have to be rewritten yet again and Whatsapp messages sent to their various retailers in India's metros explaining why their shipments might be a couple more days late.
“Hopefully, things will be better tomorrow,” Mehraj sighs. In a few hours, however, he would find out how wrong he was — he should have known from the army trucks that passed him. By evening, there would be gunfire exchanged between soldiers and militants, just kilometres away from Mehraj's factory. And then, a few more days of shut shutters, absent workers, eerily-still machines and half-made cricket bats waiting for a midwife to usher them into this world.
In Kashmir, the willow does not weep. Instead, it holds its breath in silence and tries to blend in with the stillness around it, waiting for life to spark out again.
All the work for a fraction of the gain
A stone's throw away from Mehraj's establishment, Abdul Majeed's much-larger Alfa Sports too isn't producing any bats. But he does have a couple of his workers over. A bunch of already completed bats needs to be packed and readied for transportation.
Majeed explains that this is the worst time for production to be disrupted. “Winter is when we have maximum business,” he says. “That's when the demand is at its highest. Because that's when kids across India have a respite from the heat and play the most.”
The bats that Majeed's factory produces — he estimates more than 5000 bats have already been made this month — will be transported to his various retailers in Mumbai and Delhi, who will likely triple its factory price. “The most expensive bat that I make here costs me around Rs 1500,” says Majeed. “But once they reach the retail outlets in the big cities, they are going to sell for Rs 5-6000, maybe even more.”
Some of his bats, Majeed says, even find their way outside to countries like Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. “I know people export my bats,” he says. “I can't do it myself because I don't have an export license. I've been trying to get one now for some time. But it's just endless paperwork.”
Familiar foes, a new villain
Even when his factory isn't shut and his workers are present, Majeed still has a limited window of time to make his bats. The electricity in Kashmir, especially outside Srinagar, is much like its fancier cousin, the internet. If it's there, then that means it's probably not going to be there for much longer.
“The electricity here goes every alternate hour,” he says. “A generator is not an option — where are we going to get fuel from?”
And a blackout is catastrophic for the day's production, for when one process is delayed, then the chain of processes that follows it has to inevitably be put on hold. “Making a bat is a combination of about 30 processes,” Majeed says. “And the one that needs machine-work come at the very top.”
But of late, an even more formidable foe has emerged, especially for smaller factories. When the Central Government brought in the GST regime last year, the tax on cricket bats went up from 5 per cent to 12 per cent.
For bigger factories like that of Majeed's, the loss is bearable — the sheer number of bats he produces ensures that. But for a smaller establishment like that of Mehraj's that makes around 1000 bats a month, the blow is much more severe. “Now I have to pay the GST every month,” says Mehraj. His income though trickles in from various parts of the country over twelve months.
While the brunt of the increase in bat prices is borne by the final customer, manufacturers are worried nonetheless. One of the main selling points of the Kashmir willow is that it's much cheaper than the better-performing English willow. If that is no longer the case, then why would anyone opt for their products, they ask.
The disappearing willow
The biggest threat to the long-term future of the industry though is the fact that no one wants to grow the willow tree anymore.
“Farmers now prefer to grow trees like poplar,” says Amin Dar, who runs Sangam Sports Works. “The willow takes as much as fifteen years to mature. Why would they wait that long when they can grow poplars or apples and get results in 4-5 years?”
A reality check was the 2014 Kashmir floods that wreaked havoc on the industry. “There are no concrete statistics since most of these trees grow on private property,” says Dar. “But we know that lakhs of trees were damaged, not to mention 60 per cent of all clefts left to dry in factories.”
For many farmers, that meant the fruits of a decade-long labour were washed down the Jhelum in a single day.
A bat's story
Back in Majeed's factory, he has got a worker to start up the mechanised saw to demonstrate how a bat is born.
“After we carve the clefts out from willow logs, they are left out to dry for one year,” he says. “We bring in the handles of the bat from Punjab, they're made of cane. These are hammered into the dried clefts.”
It is this brutish amalgam of cane and willow that gets to the hand of the worker sitting in front of the mechanised saw. There are no markings on the wood but he knows exactly where to cut for length. Then he runs the face of the bat through the saw, shearing off a thin layer of wood, fully aware that the slightest trembling of his fingers will cause it to have an uneven surface and inconvenience the batsman who will soon wield it in battle. Then he turns it around and makes three cuts at various angles to lend it those familiar curves at the back. Satisfied with his craftsmanship, he holds it aloft as if he had just hit a ton with it, sawdust and splinters raining down around him like confetti, a smile flashing wide on his face.
“And that,” Majeed proudly proclaims, “is how you make a bat!”