In today’s Finshots, we explore the changing fortunes of Kashmir’s cricket bat makers.

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The Story

The Cricket World Cup begins tomorrow. And it’s turned the spotlight on an industry that has almost been forgotten in India — we’re talking about the Kashmir Willow!

For the uninitiated, professional cricket bats are typically made from the wood of a specific tree called willow. And there are a few reasons why this particular tree has been the chosen one. For starters, researchers say the wood is quite porous which simply means that it has hollow bits within it that keep it light. Then there’s the fibres in the wood which have a criss-cross pattern. This pattern makes it mechanically stronger when it’s swung. And most importantly, it has air pockets in its cells which give it a certain elasticity when hit by a cricket ball. Also, not to forget that aesthetics plays a role too — as one scientist put it, willow bats make “a satisfying sound when it strikes the leather ball.” Yup, that sweet thump that cricket fans love can’t really be recreated by other types of wood.

Now there are primarily two regions in the world that grow these specific willow trees. Of course, there’s the birthplace of the sport England. And there’s the Himalayan region of Kashmir which got its major plantations in the 1920s when the British introduced it — some say to meet their cricketing needs while others claim it was for use as firewood.

But here’s the thing. Despite being around for a century now, Kashmir Willow has been treated like a poorer cousin. The willow hasn’t made big waves internationally since serious cricketers prefer the English Willow. They say the wood is of higher quality. It feels better. It strokes the ball better. And also, Kashmiri craftsmen have lacked the technical know-how to make better bats. So the end result is that England has commanded a virtual monopoly on this market while Kashmir willow languished.

But things might be looking up for the industry now. Kashmir has been making some noise of late with one company called GR8 Sports leading the charge. They managed to finally convince the sport’s governing body, the ICC, to give them a shot. And then, a few international players in the Omani and UAE teams tried out the bats emblazoned with the company sticker. And when the batters clicked, the export orders flooded in. People realised that maybe they were wrong about the bats. Maybe the willow had what it took to compete at the highest levels. From virtually zero exports in 2020 to 35,000 bat exports in 2021 and 125,000 bats being sent outside the country in 2022, things are looking up.

And that’s not where it ends. For the first time ever, Kashmir willow bats will be used by cricketers in a 50-over World Cup too! It’s huge. The roughly 100,000 people directly employed by the industry and the 400 bat manufacturers in the region can finally smile.

And this could mean the end of the English chokehold on bats.

Or could it? Are we getting too far ahead of ourselves? Because this sliver of opportunity for Kashmir might slip away just as quickly as it emerged.

Why’s that, you ask?

Well, the region is actually running out of willow trees!

Remember how we told you that for 100 years, no one really paid much attention to Kashmir Willow? The end result of that neglect translated to two things.

  1. Farmers wanted to make more money so they switched trees. They chopped their willow trees and switched to Poplar which had multiple uses — in tennis ball bats, in pencils, and in plywood. It was a much more profitable endeavour. And Poplars even matured in just 15 years. That’s half the time as the Willow. And this meant farmers could ramp up business even faster.
  2. There was also rampant smuggling of willow trees. Yup, unscrupulous folks sawed these trees and took them to other bat-making centres like Jalandhar and Meerut. Even though the government has tried to regulate sales of willow in Jammu & Kashmir, a 2017 report said that the smugglers haven’t stopped. They have carried on recklessly.

So people kept cutting down willow trees in Kashmir. There wasn’t anyone to replant them. And that means a shortage of supply is imminent. Especially if the demand picks up now and more factories try to grab a slice of the pie. Kashmir could run out of willow trees within the next 5–10 years. And that’s going to be quite catastrophic for the industry.

So yeah, it seems that even though Kashmir’s bat industry has finally caught its big break, it's time to focus on regeneration efforts if we really want to compete with Britain.

Until then…

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