The game of cricket was introduced in India by the British during their rule. The first ever Cricket match was played in 1721. In 1848, the Parsi community in then Bombay formed the first cricket club, The Oriental Cricket Club. During 1900s, some of the Indian players gained wide appreciation both nationally and internationally for their cricketing skills. Ranjit Singh and KS Duleep Singh were the first Indian shining beacons of the game and today two premier first class tournaments in India are named after them, ie Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy. Today cricket is undoubtedly the most popular game in the country.

Professional cricket requires a lot of pieces of sporting and protective gear and equipment. The most prominent piece of equipment being the cricket bat. In olden times and even today the most premium cricket bats are manufactured from Willow wood.  The Willow wood bat is traditionally made specifically from a variety of white willow called cricket bat willow (Salix alba var. caerulea), treated with raw (unboiled) linseed oil, which has a protective function. This variety of willow is used as it is very tough and shock-resistant. There are only two places in world today that produce high quality willow wood capable of producing professional bats. One is United Kingdom which produces English Willow and the other is Kashmir, India which produces Kashmiri Willow.

With the rising popularity of the game in the country, there was a need for production of cricketing gear and especially bats locally at an affordable rate and in large quantity. The English Willow was unaffordable to most of the population due to the high cost. A cheap local alternative had to be found which did not compromise on the quality of bats. The simple solution was to plant willow in India at a suitable location and produce willow bats locally. The region which had suitable climatic conditions to support willow plants was Kashmir and hence the British decided to undertake willow plantation in Kashmir. Though the willow was believed to have existed in Kashmir centuries ago, a large-scale effort to plant it in the region on an industrial scale was carried out during the 19th century on the advice of Walter R. Lawrence and J.C. Macdonell, who was then the head of the forest department of the state.Although it was found that the willow wood would easily grow in most parts of Kashmir valley, areas around Anantnag appeared to be the best for producing higher quality of wood.

It took almost 40 years for the willow tree to mature enough to produce willow capable of producing cricket bats. On harvesting of the first batch of willow in Kashmir it came to notice that the willow had mutated into a slightly different variety due to different climatic conditions in England and Kashmir. The Kashmiri willow turned out to be slightly brownish compared to almost white English willow. Also Kashmiri willow was harder, more shock resistant and heavier compared to English willow and was likely to give the batsmen maximum value for their shots. The quality and durability was high grade and the distinct characteristics made it suitable to a certain style of play and was preferred by players who liked heavier bats. Some of the most famous batsmen of the game who preferred Kashmiri willow were Sir Vivian Richards, Sunil Gavaskar,Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and, Yuvraj Singh to name a few.

Kashmir Willow Production Ecosystem

Today most of the Kashmiri willow cricket bat industry is concentrated in South Kashmir especially around Anantnag, Awantipora, Bijbehara and Sangam-Halamulla area. There are dedicated plantations of Kashmiri willow trees and a strict quality control is exercised. Numerous domestic as well as international sporting gear companies source their cricketing bats from Kashmir. Few popular brands which manufacture Kashmir willow bats are Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra, Gray Nicolls, Sanspareils Green lands(SG), Slazenger, MRF and Adidas. The cost advantage of the Kashmiri bats vis-à-vis English willow without compromising on quality ensures that the Kashmiri Willow bats remain popular and competitive and the region remains the second largest exporter of cricket bats in the world, right behind the UK. With increasing popularity of cricket and more tournaments like IPL and further corporatization of the game, the industry looks set for a bright future. The only predicament to the rapid growth of the industry is the uneasy security situation on account of terrorism, a bottleneck of infrastructure and limited institutional support for the betterment and progress of the industry. In-spite of all its glory, the Kashmiri willow bat making industry remains essentially a larger version of cottage industry with antique practices and implements and a very high reliance on manual  bat makers.

The Follow Through

During the floods of September 2014, the Kashmiri willow bat manufacturing units were badly hit as the floods not only washed away a major portion of the processed and unprocessed willow but also destroyed a large volume of prime willow trees seriously affecting availability of high quality willow for years as it takes 40 to 50 years for a willow tree to grow fully to yield optimum quality of clefts. To overcome this situation, the government did compensate the affected manufacturing units and started a plantation drive to increase the cultivation of willow. A wide publicity of Kashmir Willow also was done. The situation has gradually limped back to normal and the supply of willow clefts has been restored. The last one year has been of uncertainly for the region with abrogation of Art 370, full integration of Jammu and Kashmir with rest of India and then the ongoing COVID crisis. However after the COVID emergency is resolved, the Kashmiri willow industry is likely to find itself in a sweet spot with easy access to markets throughout country and internationally and a general insatiable hunger for cricket in the country. 

There is however a need for modernization and professionalism in the manner in which these production units are run to keep them competitive in the longer run and take full advantage of the popularity of the game in the country. The need of the hour is young dynamic entrepreneurs who can take up the mantel of this industry and truly take it ahead.

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