Kashmir’s bat manufacturing industry got a shot in the arm when the UAE batsman Junaid Siddiqui smashed the longest six – a colossal 109 metres – of the just concluded T20 world cup with a bat manufactured in Kashmir,
31-year-old Fawzul Kabeer is a young entrepreneur from Kashmir. He has made his mark in the international market for his GR8 willow bat industry, whose bats are being used by many of the top national and international cricket teams.
Kabeer’s story has been one of hard work. It took his one and a half years of unrelenting efforts to finally get his cricket bats made of Kashmiri willow approved by the International Cricket Council (ICC), the world governing body of cricket.
(Before his GR8 bat was approved by the ICC, Fawzul Kabeer had tirelessly toured the cricket playing nations around the world to promote his product. Pic: Shah Jehangir)
Kabeer and I had been Facebook friends and finally met in 2020 in Srinagar over lunch and a late evening barbeque meal at Iqbal’s located in the famous barbeque market at Khayam. While I learnt of his hard work over the years, I also discovered he’s an amazing singer.
Kabeer has done his Master’s in Business Administration from the Islamic University at Awantipora and is pursuing his PhD in strategic management. His life was a struggle after the death of his father Abdul Kabeer Dar who set up the GR8 sports manufacturing unit at Sangam, Anantnag (South Kashmir) in 1974.
After the death of their father in 2014, Kabeer and his brother Niyaz-ul-Kabeer toured cricket playing nations including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Gulf countries but couldn’t secure any orders. The response from everywhere was that the Kashmir willow cricket bats come nowhere close to those used in the international matches, that is English willow, in terms of quality and is good for amateurs only or, as he puts it, “gully cricket.”
He soon learnt the technicalities. A bat has to be designed with size, balance, and weight in mind. Kabeer explains: “Crafting a bat is not just about the raw material but understanding of the game, the player and the pitch. An opener’s bat is not the same as the one used by a middle-order batter. A slower pitch requires a different bat than the one used on a bouncier track. Everything about the bat – the size, the handle, the thickness and the width – has to meet the international standards.”
(A bat has to be designed keeping in mind the international standards with respect to its height, thickness, width, handle and other factors. Pic: Shah Jehangir)
He started manufacturing bats with the knowledge and information gathered from his travels and getting expert workers from other states. Besides Kashmir, cricket bats are made in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The willow, of course, is sourced from Jammu and Kashmir. Raw material from Kashmir is sold to manufactures in Jalandhar in Punjab and Meerut in Uttar Pradesh who sell the finished product in their own name.
In order for the bat to be accepted worldwide, it became important for it to be launched from a prominent platform. And no platform could be bigger than the 2022 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup. “Once you get the approval from the ICC, any international player can use your products,” says Kabeer. To get the products registered by the ICC, “we had to submit all our manufacturing details to meet their standards.”
Kabeer’s firm couldn’t afford Indian cricketers for the promotion as they were seeking huge sums. Negotiations with teams resulted in the Oman team using GR8 bats in the T20 World Cup 2021. Naseem Khushi and Bilal Khan of Oman used these bats during the T20 World Cup match against Bangladesh at the Dubai Cricket Stadium.
He is proud that four players from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) cricket team used bats and protective gear manufactured at his factory during a UAE-Namibia ICC T20 Cricket World Cup 2022 match played in the Victoria state of Australia, in October. The GR8 bat earned a special owner when UAE’s Junaid Siddiqui hit the longest six of the just concluded T20 world cup. Siddiqui’s 109-metre monster came against Sri Lanka when he deposited Dushmantha Chameera deep into the crowd.
Kabeer’s hard work of 10 years has yielded excellent response from countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Oman, Bahrain and Scotland. Kabeer says the demand for Kashmiri bats has increased in the international markets. His firm has already sent consignments to around one dozen countries and many orders are in the queue, including a huge order from 150 Dubai schools and cricket academies.
Kabeer says that “with the help of contemporary technology, we have taken this to a new level where we employ Computer Monitored Compression (CMC) to deliver precision, accuracy and compression to the bat and ours is the only company in the world that uses this technology.” It’s a trade secret that Kabeer chooses not to elaborate on.
Cricketing legends Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, Yuraj Singha and Virender Sehwag have previously used Kashmir willow bats, but this is the first time that the bats manufactured in Kashmir are being used by international cricket players in a mega event like a T20 world cup.
Kabeer is ecstatic to see his bats in action at one of the world’s biggest cricket tournaments. His bats are the only ones, among over 2.5 million produced in Kashmir annually, that have passed the ICC standards.
Some 35 international players would also be playing with his factory bats, which are reasonably priced between INR 1,500 and 8,000, as compared to English willow bats that can cost up to INR 125,000.
Kashmir Willow vs English Willow
Though the willow was believed to have existed in Kashmir centuries ago, a large-scale effort to plant it in the region was carried out during the 19th century on the advice of the British author Walter R. Lawrence and J.C. McDonell, who was then the head of the forest department of the state.
It is generally believed that the willow used in making bats in Kashmir was brought in by the British in the 1820s. The species (Salix alba var. caerulea) is identical to English willow.
When the British brought with them cricket, there was a need to manufacture the bats locally, instead of depending on imports from England. According to a research conducted by the faculty of forestry at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST), Kashmir, that demand was met by Allah Baksh, a native of Sialkot (now in Pakistan). He set up the first unit at Sangam-Halamulla. It was the only facility at that time and it produced more hockey sticks than cricket bats.
A study on sports goods titled ‘Indian Sports Goods Industry: Strategies for Tapping the Export Potential’ conducted by the Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM Bank) says that the Kashmir willow bat is one such product which holds significance as it is made from some of the best quality wood (willow) in the world.
The general perception thus far had been that the English willow bats were a lot better than those made from the Kashmir willow. Until 1980, there were around 30 units operating in this region. However, in the years following India’s world cup triumph in 1983, there was an exponential rise in the demand for bats across India.
The bats made from Kashmir willow are a little darker in colour as compared to the English willow. Its colour can be described as a lighter shade of brown. On the other hand, the bats made from the English willow are a shade or two lighter than their Kashmiri counterpart or almost white. As compared to the English willow, which is 1100 grams, the Kashmir willow bat is heavier in weight at 1220 grams. The bats made from Kashmir willow are known to have a much higher density as compared to their English counterparts. In fact, the English willow bats are known to break easily.
In terms of structure, the English willow is much softer than the Kashmiri one. Kashmiri willow is known to be quite hard. Since English willow is softer, it is more prone to breakage and, hence, less durable. The English willow requires more maintenance than the Kashmir willow. Due to lack of oiling or proper storage, the bats will break or get damaged. Players who wish to slog and play cross-batted shots tend to break English willow bats more often. The Kashmir willow bats are also a lot more affordable than the English Willow bats. Kabeer is quite optimistic that Kashmiri bats will globally emerge as an alternative to the English willo
Kashmir Bat Industry
About 40 kms south of Srinagar city, the National Highway is dotted with cricket bat factories and shops on both sides. Lines of shops display neat stacks of willow wood along the highway. Behind the shops are small manufacturing units, where the local willow is made into cricket bats that find their way to different states of India and cricket-playing nations around the world.
The 7-kilometer stretch of the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway is one of the two places in the world that produce professional bats made of willow—the other being England. Australia and South Africa also make bats but import the wood from England. In South Asia, bats are also made in Pakistan with the wood coming from Sialkot and Rawalakot.
The Department of Industries and Commerce, Kashmir has declared the area from Jawbehra-Sangam an industrial zone (500 meters on either side of the highway) for cricket bat manufacturing units. At present, there are more than 400 cricket bat manufacturing units. Nearly 100 families along the stretch and one lakh people, both locals and non-locals, who work with them, make it India’s largest cricket-bat-manufacturing belt. The sector has an annual turnover of around INR 100 crores. However, most people in this trade export only clefts to manufacturers in the neighbouring states that are still the largest producers in India.
The willow wood is sourced in bulk, predominantly from Anantnag and Pulwama districts. There are 7 villages–Bijbehara, Charsoo, Hallamulla, Sangam, Pujteng, Mirzapor and Sethar–in South Kashmir where cricket bats are manufactured, employing local workers. Sethar and Sangam have been notified as an industrial cluster for cricket bat manufacturing. Manufacturing units of Anantnag and Pulwama have also been given government registration certificates, which would enable them to avail all benefits from the government, aimed at strengthening the industry.
The government is also keen towards the promotion of the Kashmir willow cricket bat industry internationally. In order to revive Kashmir’s cricket bat manufacturing and other wood-based industry, a team of Union Ministry of Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises officials had also visited the valley. Common Facility Centre (CFC), Sethar was established at an estimated cost of INR 4.61 crores with plant and machinery installed by the Technology Development Centre (PPDC), Meerut.
Set up during the tenure of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as the chief minister, the objective of this CFC is to facilitate seasoning of willow clefts and providing all the facilities to the cricket bat unit holders under one roof. This will enable the unit holders to use modern techniques in the production of world class cricket bats.
The government is creating awareness and providing support to the cricket bat manufactures for GI tagging through field officers. The Directorate of Industries and Commerce has taken up the issue of granting logo and GI tagging with the Director, Craft Development Institute (CDI), Srinagar.
Under the World Bank-funded Jhelum Tawi Flood Recovery Project (JTFRP), Faculty of Forestry SKUAST Kashmir has been engaged for the identification and propagation of the best quality willow being used for the manufacturing of cricket bats. In SKUAST Kashmir, superior quality willow saplings were distributed among beneficiaries associated with Sethar cricket bat cluster.
It is expected that, with the use of superior willow, the quality of cricket bats being manufactured in the Kashmir valley would be comparable to those manufactured in the rest of the world, thereby increasing their demand exponentially.
Willow wood is cut into blocks called clefts and left in stacks to season under the sun for up to six months. These can be seen all along the Srinagar-Jammu highway. Once ready to use, the wood is chiselled, hammered and polished by the workers into the finished product. Depending on the available resources, a factory can produce anywhere between 30 and 250 bats a day.
Kabeer, who is also spokesperson of the cricket bat manufacturing association of Kashmir, says that in international cricket, the wide use of English willow is mainly because willow clefts of Kashmir were smuggled out of the valley and Meerut and Jalandhar based dealers had hijacked the bat supply of Kashmir.
Realizing that the raw material was being used unsustainably and sold at cheaper rates outside the valley, the government of J&K imposed a ban on the export of raw clefts in 1998. Entrepreneurs like Kabeer have revived the bat manufacturing industry of Kashmir.
The challenges to the cricket bat manufacturing industry include the political landscape of Kashmir, power outages, pandemic and extinction of the willow trees. Continuous dependency on gensets considerably increases the manufacturing costs. According to a report, during the past three years, the cricket bat industry in Kashmir has incurred a loss of more than INR 1,000 crores.
Kashmir’s dwindling willow plantations are impacting the region’s famed bat industry and risking the supply of cricket bats in India, where the sport is hugely followed. Over the years, farmers in the region have been planting poplars in place of willows. The faster-growing poplar tree is preferred by the booming plywood industry.
Most of the existing plantations are on private land and are being cultivated by individual farmers rather than through a collective effort. It takes 15-20 years for a willow tree to mature and yield the maximum number of clefts. These days, high-density willow trees are also planted which get ready within 7-8 years. The Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Jammu (SKUAST) has also identified four promising clones of willow.
However, there is no government policy of afforestation after the willow trees have been felled. Strict forest laws, like those in Canada, are required. The laws in Canada protect the forests and ensure that sustainable forest management practices are followed across the country. This means that consumers can be confident that the forest and wood products they buy from Canada were obtained legally and harvested under a system of sustainable forest management. Canada has committed to planting two billion trees by 2030, above and beyond the replanting legally mandated after harvesting, to reduce GHG emissions, make communities greener, improve human wellbeing and support biodiversity.
“Our repeated pleas to the government to plant willow trees on state land have fallen on deaf ears. The extinction of willow is due within 5-6 years if rapid plantation drives are not immediately launched in the region,” laments Kabeer.
In England, the willow is being cultivated for the sole purpose of bat manufacturing. But here, it is also used as fuel. Kabeer believes that the government needs to provide one billion willow saplings to boost the production of bats and also have stringent laws in place.
Based in New Delhi, Jaspreet Kaur is an architect, urban designer and trustee of the Lymewoods and Span Foundation.