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Culture Watch: The Kashmir Willow

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Culture Watch: The Kashmir Willow
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“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”…..

Reported by Team RK
26 Sep 2020

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.

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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