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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW DELHI: When Mehran Khan Kapoor first picked up the Kashmir willow bat and used it to play at the 2022 Gulf Cricket Championship, he was astonished to learn of its strength.
“The first match I played, I scored some 60 runs and I was surprised. Like every ball when I hit it, it went beyond the boundaries,” Kapoor, who played for the Oman national cricket team in the championship in Qatar last year, told Arab News.
“It’s better than the English willow.”
Though the Kashmir bat has had more than a century of manufacturing history in the valley, its branding origins only began to surface in recent years. The region is the only place after Great Britain that makes cricket equipment from willow trees, after it was brought there during British colonial rule.
The Kashmir willow bat started grabbing attention following the International Cricket Council Men’s T20 World Cup tournament last year, when players from Oman wielded them at the championship held in Qatar and the UAE, showing the strength and compression deemed ideal for a cricket bat.
“I enjoy playing with the Kashmir willow bat, it has a nice wood and helps me hit hard,” Rafiullah, who also played for the Oman team, told Arab News.
“The shot gets a new life when hit with the Kashmir willow.”
As India hosts the Cricket World Cup this year, frenzy over the country’s favorite sport has doubled for many Kashmiris, as they witness their indigenously manufactured willow bat making its debut at the flagship event.
The ICC Men’s World Cup 2023, which takes place every four years, started on Oct. 5 and will continue until Nov. 19 in various stadiums across India.
For Rayees Ahmad Dar, who owns Sahid Sports in Kashmir’s Anantnag city, the global recognition has led to increased demand for Kashmiri willow bats.
“Ever since our bat entered the international arena, the demand for it has skyrocketed,” Dar told Arab News.
The demand surge was also felt by Fawzul Kabiir, the managing director of GR8 cricket bat company, who played a pivotal role in rebranding and marketing Kashmiri willow bats.
“The demand has risen significantly. We have a demand of 7 million bats for this year, and we have already produced around 4.5 million bats. However, we are running short of supplies due to the exceptionally high demand,” Kabiir told Arab News.
“It’s a proud moment that an indigenous product of Kashmir … is going to the international stage, marking a historic moment in the 102-year history of Kashmir’s cricket bat-making.”
Kabiir’s company is currently the valley’s sole batmaker for international players. In 2021, the ICC granted permission to use GR8’s logo in international cricket — a significant step in recognizing the region’s bat industry.
“Just five years ago, this very game was considered an extracurricular activity, and we had only 10 cricket-playing nations in the world. But ICC has taken this very product, this very game, to the world. We now have 162 cricket-playing nations,” Kabiir said. “Cricket has become a career option, leading to a surge in demand.”
Kashmir’s bat industry was able to grow due to modern technology, which allowed for the product to be exported to other countries, said Faiz Bakshi, secretary-general of Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
But the Kashmiri willow bat faces an existential threat with the depletion of the willow tree population in the valley as around 75,000 of them are felled annually to sustain the bat industry.
Bakshi said the government should intervene to secure the industry’s future.
“They have to take care of this supply of raw material that is required for producing bats, and in that context, my suggestion would be to promote the growth of this type of willow,” he told Arab News.
For GR8’s Kabiir, however, the threat is more imminent.
“This industry has been facing a shortage of raw material since last year and in the next five years, our industry won’t exist,” he said. “Our raw material is on the verge of extinction.”
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