The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A bat takes a catch

Bijbehara (Anantnag), March 11: Whatever Michael Holding has to say against cricketing minnows, Kashmir will not mind a few more of them in the World Cup.

As the mega event gets under way, the state’s dying bat manufacturing industry will be raising a few cheers for Kenya. No politics here — it’s just that the east African nation has offered a huge contract to Kashmiri batmakers.

The offer has brought hope to an industry trounced by rivals in some other states who get the bulk of their raw willow from Kashmir, mostly smuggled. The willow is of the same species as Silex alva, its English cousin used worldwide by top cricketers because of its quality.

While Kashmiri willow has changed the fortunes of manufacturers in Jalandhar and Meerut, batmakers in the country’s lone willow-producing state languish in neglect.

“But we may finally get global recognition. The Kenyan sports goods industry is ready with orders,’’ said Nazir Ahmad Salroo, president of the Kashmir Cricket Bat Manufacturers Association.

“They saw our products during a Tech Mart fair in New Delhi and were impressed. Once the deal is through, it will throw open the floodgates of opportunity for us.”

The batmakers, however, are not stepping out of crease too soon. The Kenyans have been asked to wait a while.

“We fear we won’t be able to meet their needs right now. We are waiting for our common facility centre (CFC) to become operational so that we can produce bats in bulk,’’ Salroo said. He wouldn’t reveal the size of the Kenyan order.

The multi-crore CFC will come up at Sethar in Anantnag in three to four months. “The seasoning of willow clefts (willow timber cut in the shape of a bat’s blade) – which removes the moisture -- takes around nine months now. But at the CFC, it will take a week. The centre will also help export the high-quality bats,’’ said Abdul Hameed Bhat, general manager, state industries department.

That will be a welcome change after six decades of neglect. “The industry feeds over 5,000 families. The only way to groom it would have been to ban export of raw clefts outside the state,” Salroo said.

“In the year 2000, the National Conference government did just that. But to our surprise, the ban was lifted just three days later and the government awarded a quota of two lakh clefts to outstation manufacturers. Today, 18 lakh clefts are smuggled out illegally every year.’’

The state government has finally woken up. The CFC apart, it plans a massive plantation of English and better-quality Kashmiri willow, the soft and grainy sort.

“We have identified the land where we’ll grow the best samples and distribute them for plantation. It can match the English variety and will be much cheaper,” Bhat said.

The growing prospect of trade along the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road also brings hope.

“Before Partition, Sialkot was the biggest centre of sports goods on the subcontinent. I would accompany my father Gulam Ahmad to sell hockey bends (the lower part of the stick, made from Kashmiri ashwood) there,’’ said Gul Mohammad, a manufacturer.

“If we again have access to those markets, we’ll get better prices.”

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