Walking along the dust-covered lanes of Shastri Nagar in the town of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, you hear the incessant thud of wood hitting wood and a constant sawing noise. On closer inspection, you find a couple of incomplete two-storeyed houses, where about seven-eight persons are slogging away, trying to shape the perfect cricket bat.
Mohammad Sabir Khan is the owner of a small factory, one of the town’s numerous micro enterprises. Inside his premises, wood shavings cover the uneven surface of the rooms like a soft carpet. Rows of unpolished bats line the corners, planks of willow stack up on each other.
Sabir asks his workers to pick up the pace — there is a lot of work left to be done for the day — before sitting down for a chat. “I played till university level. When I realised that I could not cut it as a cricketer, I turned to this profession. It has been 10 years.”
How has the journey been so far? “I started operating from my house. Operations were small. I used to travel to deliver bats myself. The advent of the IPL coupled with India’s World Cup win enabled the business to flourish. My bats reached almost 27 states and I even started exporting in small quantities. But the last couple of years have not been kind.”
Of late, things have been difficult for these enterprises in the city, which along with Punjab’s Jalandhar produces a bulk of sports goods bought and sold all over India.
“Earlier, we only paid the Value Added Tax (VAT). With the advent of GST, things have got complicated. Prices of items have increased and demand is decreasing. The tax too increased, but what has become more difficult is filing paperwork every month.”
Taxation is not the only problem. The cane required for making bat handles is usually imported from Singapore because of quality. It can also be gotten from the Andaman islands but it is of inferior standard.
“Price of cane in Singapore has increased by almost 40 per cent. Big companies like Sanspareils Greenlands (SG), Sareen Sports (SS) and BD Mahajan & Sons (BDM) have managed but we are not in the same boat.”
Sabir goes on to proudly show photos where Karn Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are using bats made by his company, Sports Panther-Sports. Asked why he is not producing balls, he says, “That’s another story.”
The Nayi Basti area is full of one-room apartments. The old and young are engaged in the same activity — trying to get the red cherry ready. Ashok has been at it for 15 years. He has also started teaching the tricks of the trade to his son. Beside him lies a bucket where a few balls lie ready.
The 35-year-old confesses that business is down. He offers water and proceeds to reveal the reasons behind the slump. “Making cricket balls requires leather. Only cow hide suffice.” It has become difficult to procure this under the current situation and ball manufacturers have had to resort to buying this from other states. “We only know this job. How will we survive?”
Balls have become expensive as result and the price has nearly doubled. Fewer people are willing to work in this profession. Quality of products has come down. Not just small scale manufacturers, established companies are also facing this difficulty. Those in the trade are saying Pakistan has overtaken India in exporting cricket balls.
An auto-rickshaw takes you to Meerut’s nondescript Sports Complex. The area houses a number of manufacturing companies. You walk alongside a rectangular park and after some time, you reach the gates of the BDM factory.
As you step inside, you feel the difference in scale. Hundreds of workers, each assigned specific roles, cut, glue, stitch hundreds of cricketing products. Huge packages are stacked near the front of the factory, ready for export.
The company opened in the 1950s and three generations of the Mahajan family have been at it. Rakesh Mahajan, the owner, sits in an office where walls are adorned by pictures of cricketers who once used to wield the willow with the words BDM emblazoned on them. He narrates how the times have changed.
“Multi-national corporations have ruined our decades-old business. Not just us, all major Indian factories are suffering.” For a long time, the manufacturer’s logo used to appear on the bat, either on the side or on the back. But this changed in 2015 after the ICC amended its logo policy to stipulate that a bat can display only one manufacturer’s brand.
Mahajan goes on to explain. “We nurture talents by giving them our products when nobody else does. Virat Kohli used our bats when he was a youngster. Now companies like Nike, Reebok, MRF pay huge sums and their sticker is put on our products. We can produce bats but cannot pay such huge sponsorship amounts.”
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Grappling with the cane and cow hide problems, taxation has become another headache for these companies. Products are placed under different categories and slabs. While 12 per cent is levied on bats and pads, helmets and kit bags are charged 18 per cent. Even the labour laws are outdated, they say.
“India is such a big country with enormous potential. The government should realise the important role we are playing in shaping the youth. The sports manufacturing unit as a whole needs fresh impetus and a vibrant tax model so that it is allowed to grow and even the poorest kids can continue to dream to become like Sachin Tendulkar and Kohli.”
While the battle of bat and ball continues to keep India engaged, those making them and helping the masses sustain interest in cricket are facing a very different reality.