For more than 100 years they have been making cricket bats from Kashmir’s willow trees. Along the highway leading to the town of Sangam in the Indian-administered region, dozens of little workshops display neat stacks of the roughly hewn pale wood outside. Inside, the willow is painstakingly fashioned into cricket bats, which are then shipped across India and to other cricketing countries around the world.
The humid environment and fertile soil make the area ideal for willows, which traditionally provide the material for cricket bats. Kashmiri willow bats have a reputation for quality and skilled bat-makers here have refined their craft since the 19th century.
But the plantations created decades ago are not being replaced by farmers, who are turning to more lucrative crops with greater resilience in a changing climate. Many have replaced willows with poplars, a faster-growing and more profitable source of timber, which is used to make plywood.
Now the blocks of willow wood, known as clefts, are becoming harder to obtain, putting the whole industry here and the 100,000 people employed in it at risk.
Kashmir’s cricket bat-makers blame the Indian government for not intervening and for in effect turning its back on the industry.
However, Mehmood Shah, regional director of industries and commerce, denies there is a timber shortage and claims that the government is stepping in to plant willows.
According to Mehraj-ud-Din-Malik, regional director with Kashmir’s state forestry department, the problem has been exacerbated by climate change, which has made the land drier and so less suited to growing the trees.
“Willow trees require damp land, but the amount of such area has decreased,” he says. “The farmers are preferring plantations of poplars. This is because the farmers are not able to earn a profit and the wood suppliers buy willow at dirt-cheap prices.
“Farmers are staying away from willow plantations on a large scale because of this and there is not sufficient land available for willow plantation.”
One of the valley’s most established bat manufacturers is Gr8, which started making unbranded bats for other manufacturers in 1974. Its owner, Fawzul Kabeer, decided to develop his own brand that would adhere to international standards in 2010.
His proudest moment came in 2021, when his bats were approved for use in the T20 World Cup by the Oman Cricket Board. Several players used his bats and the following year Junaid Siddique, a Pakistani-born cricketer who plays for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) national cricket team, hit the longest six in the 2022 World Cup using a Gr8 willow bat.
“We have been providing cricket bats to 17 cricket-playing nations, including Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, UAE and a few others,” says Kabeer. “We provided a cheaper alternative to the English willow bat. But this shortage of willow could shatter our hard work and dreams in just a decade.”
He estimates that the existing plantations on government land will not be able to sustain manufacturing demand for more than a few years if replanting does not increase soon.
“If the government does not start afforestation of willows in those patches, over 400 bat manufacturing units will suffer huge losses.
“The skilled or unskilled labour associated directly or indirectly with the bat industry would be rendered jobless, and there would be no bats produced in the valley,” adds Kabeer.
Mehraj-ud-Din Dar, a trader, agrees, “Farmers in our region would put willow on their farms, but right now no one is satisfied to do so, even though there is a growing need. To preserve this sector of the economy, the government must take this issue seriously.”
Farooq Ahmad, a willow supplier, says the plywood industry is also buying up the remaining stocks of willow. “We prefer to sell our stock of willow to plywood factories as they do not fish out rough logs and give better rates than bat manufacturers,” he adds.
“Farmers plant poplar trees because profit rates in willow are minuscule.”
According to India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry, there are 400 bat manufacturers in southern Kashmir, in an industry worth 1bn rupees (£9.7m) a year. The shortage of willow has already put numerous small-scale producers out of business and cut the productivity of others. The demise of the industry would hit the area hard.
But Shah rejects claims that the government is not replanting enough. We have adequate availability of willow trees across Kashmir valley, and accurate data of willow patches will be available with the social forestry department,” he says.
Those within the industry are looking for solutions, planting their own willows where they can and investigating the use of other materials but are not confident that Kashmir’s famous cricket bats will survive.