Cricket was introduced to India over a century ago and as the game grew in the country, it led to the emergence of the cricket bat industry. Now, there is a resurgence of interest in the Kashmiri willow, used for manufacturing cricket bats, with its use in recent cricket tournaments and most recently because of the visit of legendary former Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar to a bat factory in the Sangam area of Anantnag district in South Kashmir in February. His visit reignited discussions about Kashmiri willow, known for its quality, and the cricket bats produced from it.

However, this established industry, which directly and indirectly employs 150,000 Kashmiris, according to Fawzul Kabiir, spokesperson for the Cricket Bat Manufacturers’ Association of Kashmir, faces several challenges that require the attention of policymakers. The primary issue is the quality of the bats which can vary because of the lack of consistency in the material used. Manufacturers and willow growers in Kashmir often find it difficult to identify the suitable willow for cricket bats.

With limited resources, they land up using certain varieties of species of willow without being certain about their suitability for cricket bats, which need wood that is light, strong and with which cricketers can hit powerful shots. This lack in standardisation of the wood used in making the bats, lowers the international market value for Kashmiri willow cricket bats compared to English willow bats, which have a higher degree of certainty.

Kashmir’s rich history of bat manufacturing has contributed significantly to the region’s local economy. Image courtesy of Fawzul Kabiir, via Mongabay.

Both Kashmiri willow bats and English willow bats are made from the same willow tree, Salix alba. While the tree is found all over the world, the best places to grow it is Kashmir and England. The physical properties of the tree may vary depending on where it is located due to differences in physical environment factors such as rainfall, soil nutrient and moisture.

When used for making cricket bats, the quality of the tree is judged based on its weight, shock absorption capabilities, strength, having straight grains and not splintering easily. Caerulea or the “cricket bat willow”, is a variety of Salix alba and is most ideal cricket bats.

The Caerulea grown in Kashmir is at par with the one grown in the U.K. when their properties are compared, Kashmiri researchers have found. However, the industry in the UK is more organised, with standardised material and hence, a higher guarantee of quality.

Because of low awareness in Kashmir, about differentiating Caerulea from the other varieties or species of willow, the manufacturers in Kashmir sometimes land up using willow that does not have the required qualities to make a cricket bat.

To address this issue, the Faculty of Forestry at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology initiated a project in 2021 to help farmers and local bat manufacturers identify true cricket bat willow (Salix alba var. Caerulea) and raise awareness.

Historical roots, quality concerns

Willows are trees or shrubs that require abundant light and thrive in wet soil conditions. Easy to establish through cuttings, willows need no fertiliser input, build fertility in poor and depleted soil, and are of great value to wildlife, particularly birds and insects.

In Kashmir, willows are known as “Veer” and are represented by 23 distinct species. Willow trees cater to various needs, including paper production, furniture crafting, fuel wood, and, most notably, cricket bat manufacturing.

Willows are trees or shrubs that thrive in wet soil and abundant light. They require no fertiliser, improve soil fertility, and benefit wildlife, especially birds and insects. Image courtesy of Parvez Ahmad Sofi via Mongabay.

The history of cricket bat-making in Kashmir dates back to the 19th century, when Allah Baksh, an industrialist from Sialkot (now part of Pakistan), established a cricket bat unit at Halmulla, Bijbehara.

The initial demand came from British army officers stationed in the region, with technical know-how imported from England. This indigenous wood-based industry expanded with hundreds of manufacturing units established across the Kashmir valley, particularly in the Anantnag and Pulwama districts.

In 2014, a paper highlighted that Kashmir has around 195 cricket bat manufacturing units, with the potential to produce 1.5 million bats annually and a projected global demand of four million by 2025. The demand for bats manufactured in Kashmir has recently seen a surge after they were used in recent international cricketing tournaments.

Kabiir mentioned that a decade ago, Kashmir produced 250,000 cricket bats annually. Currently, Kashmir produces three million bats annually, marking a fifteen-fold increase in ten years.

“Our company now produces around 3,000 bats a month. After becoming the first in Kashmir to get International Cricket Council (ICC) certification in 2021, we showcased Kashmiri bats internationally. The bats were used in the Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023, hosted by India, and the Afghanistan team used the Kashmir willow. Demand has grown since then. Kashmir exported 35,000 bats in 2021, 135,000 in 2022, and 195,000 in 2023,” said Fawzul Kabiir.

“However, despite the promising market, Kashmiri cricket bats struggle to fetch competitive prices nationally and internationally. The bats fetch a maximum price of Rs. 1,000 to Rs 3,000 ($18.5 to $55.5) per bat, compared to English willow bats, which retail for $220 to $450 per bat in the global market,” said Parvez Ahmad Sofi, Professor and Head, Faculty of Forestry at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

“The primary hurdle lies in the quality of the bats as the identity of true bat willow has always been ambiguous in Kashmir. Due to the resource crunch, the cricket bat makers are using bat willow with fallible certainty,” says Sofi, referring to the uncertainty around willow selection for bats due to low awareness in identifying the most suitable species.

“The use of different (unsuitable) species of willow or even poplars to make cricket bats has earned a bad name for the established cricket bat industry in Kashmir due to lack of awareness. The shortage of high-quality raw material has increased industrial concerns and limited the opportunity to extend large-scale marketing of cricket bats beyond the territorial limits of the country,” he says.

Improving willow standards

With funding support from the Jammu and Kashmir government, the Faculty of Forestry at SKUAST Kashmir conducted an extensive survey in 2021 throughout the Kashmir region to identify the willow species that is best suited for making cricket bats and the areas where it grows.

The Salix alba variety, Caerulea, is identified as the variety best suited for making bats. The important willow-growing pockets identified across Kashmir included Pulwama, Ganderbal’s Shalebugh area, and Sopore, as shared by the officials.

“The genetically superior germplasm was multiplied scientifically, and wood samples were collected from identified Salix alba var. Caerulea (cricket bat willow) were also collected and tested for various wood properties at the Institute of Wood Science and Technology, Bengaluru [IWST]. The propagated material/germplasm was distributed among the concerned stakeholders (cricket bat manufacturing units) for further multiplication. Additionally, the tested samples at IWST, Bengaluru also showed wood properties of this Kashmiri bat willow on par with the English willow,” Sofi told Mongabay India, indicating that this supports the claim that Kashmiri willow bat is as good as an English willow bat.

The Kashmiri cricket bat industry faces quality challenges due to difficulties in identifying true cricket bat willow. Image courtesy of Fawzul Kabiir, via Mongabay.

According to the official data provided by the Faculty of Forestry at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, more than 5000 quality plant materials were distributed among the concerned stakeholders. “The germplasm of the best clones of this cultivated variety is not available in amounts sufficient to supply enough quality raw materials. Furthermore, the plantations of this cultivar are not raised under intensive management, so there is always a chance of improvement and loss of identity,” Sofi added.

The scientist mentioned that the plantations of Salix alba are grown and managed indiscriminately without following any scientific tree crop timeline. “Thus, the timber obtained is inferior in quality, which reduces the cost of clefts. Besides, there are no incentives, viz, minimum support price, input subsidy, etc., given to the farmers for raising cricket bat willow plantations,” Sofi said.

Feroz Ahmad Reshi, a 50-year-old local grower from Sethar village in Anantnag district, explained that with the rise of the pencil and plywood industries, the popularity of poplar trees surged. Poplar trees, which mature much faster than willow trees, became the preferred choice for local growers.

This shift led to poplar plantations becoming widespread, relegating willow trees to the boundaries of fields. “The true cricket bat willow (Caerulea) saplings take about 10 to 12 years to mature, compared to the 20 to 25 years needed for other varieties of Salix alba. If they grow successfully, the returns will be better, and the wood will be suitable for producing international quality cricket bats,” Reshi shared.

Reshi has dedicated two kanals (one kanal is 0.125 acres) of land to cultivating around 50 tree saplings of Caerulea. “So far, we have observed that the growth rate of these saplings is three times faster than regular willow (other than the Caerulea variety). Additionally, the branches are expected to grow straight vertically rather than laterally, allowing for more trees to be planted in the same space. Where we used to plant 30 trees in a kanal, we can now plant 50. If successful, this will increase our yield by 50%,” he said.

The grower added that in England, one willow tree can fetch around Rs 5 to 10 lakh. “Currently, a conventional Kashmiri willow tree sells for Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000 or Rs 700 to Rs 800 per cubic foot. In the next five years, if the true cricket bat willow is successful, its value could reach around Rs 2 lakh. This will encourage more growers to switch to willow cultivation. There is a need for government support in providing more saplings and incentives to promote willow cultivation,” Reshi said.

Call for government intervention

Fawzul Kabiir, who is also the owner of GR8 Sports, told Mongabay India that for over a century, this industry has been integral to Kashmir. “However, no large-scale plantation of willow trees has taken place on government land in the last 30 years, resulting in dwindling supplies. Moreover, many people who used to grow willow have switched to growing poplar because of its increasing demand in the pencil and plywood industries. Poplar matures in about 7 to 12 years, whereas a willow tree takes around 20 to 25 years. The return on investment is also better for poplar trees than for willow trees.”

He highlighted the issue related to smuggling and said, “There is an issue of rampant smuggling of willow clefts outside Kashmir. Despite existing laws prohibiting such exports, collusion between smugglers and officials facilitates the illicit trade, severely depleting the local supply. This not only threatens the indigenous industry but also endangers the livelihoods of thousands of individuals dependent on it.”

To address this, stringent regulations were implemented in 2001, mandating that willow processing is done within Kashmir, thereby safeguarding the local economy. “Nevertheless, the smuggling persists unabated, with an alarming number of trucks – 60 to 65 each month – transporting between 180,000 to 220,000 pieces of willow clandestinely. This illicit trade perpetuates the exploitation of willow farms and contributes to the gradual extinction of willow trees in Kashmir,” the cricket bat manufacturer said.

Initiatives like identifying suitable land for large-scale plantations and promoting demand creation are crucial for Kashmir bat industry’s sustainability and growth. Image courtesy of Fawzul Kabiir, via Mongabay.

Kabiir added that scientists at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology have emphasised that the superior variety can deliver results in less time than the traditional willow variants.

“If this happens, it will automatically gain popularity and we will see more land coming under its cultivation. At the same time, our annual demand for trees stands at 70,000, solely to meet the needs of cricket bat manufacturers. Excluding the smuggled portion, this equates to 200,000 trees. Thus, the current distribution of saplings falls far short of making any substantial impact. While we appreciate the identification of the ideal variant, the government should increase the number of saplings and start with extensive plantation drives,” he said.

The cricket bat manufacturer pointed out that it is important for the government to identify suitable land for large-scale plantations. “We have 9,150 hectares of wetland available in Kashmir. The government should utilise those wetlands for cultivation. Suppose the superior cricket willow is grown in these identified areas. In that case, it will not only guarantee a regular supply of willow but also ensure that the willow clefts produced after processing meet international standards, giving bat manufacturers the much-needed boost to pitch their products on the international market,” Kabiir said.

“We have proposed recommendations to the government, urging the allocation of land for willow plantations, particularly in moist conditions conducive to willow growth. There is a need for export promotion schemes, demand creation, and rejuvenation of underperforming units, which need to be managed and monitored by government agencies on a priority basis,” Sofi from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology emphasised.

This article was first published on Mongabay.