On the dusty highway of Halamulla Sangam in Kashmir, we met a man who claimed he made Cricket. We followed him to find out if it's true.
“Do we play Cricket? We make Cricket!”
Ever wondered where all the Cricket bats we play with come from? The ones that brighten up gullies with joy and boyhood across the country? Those where the kid who owns one decides the rules of the game?
At Halamulla Sangam, a dusty highway town in Kashmir, hundreds of smiling folk have spent their entire lives making these bats perfect to their blunt edges. Piles of raw, unpolished bats make the walls of wide halls. A drag of hookah, a cut through dark Willow wood, hammer to the nail, a drag of hookah again and a play of ball at the end of the day. That’s the routine around here. The sounds from these factories, spread across both sides of the highway is nothing short of a Cricket stadium with machines, wood and some good old Sheesha.
“On a good year, our factory alone makes 40,000 to 50,000 bats! There are about 300 factories in total here.”
The scale of the sport in the sub continent becomes apparent with every passing hour. And barely a few steps away from where I stand, men are hard at work, the day after Eid.
Every story has a beginning and this one dates back to 1947. A bittersweet time when India’s celebration of freedom was paired with the separation of Pakistan. The now ‘Dar Sports,’ which marks the beginning of the ‘Bat Street’ was the only factory that made Cricket bats. During the partition and unrest in Kashmir, the owner abandoned the factory and fled to Pakistan leaving more than 200 people with a working unit. Over time, the people who worked there started off on their own, setting up smaller and some larger factory units around that building. The trend was fuelled by businessmen from Jalandar and Mirat deciding to place huge orders to distribute these bats to the rest of the country. And the makers haven’t looked back since then.
Today, if you have ever held a Cricket bat in India, the chances are high that it was handcrafted by these dedicated men, and made here in Kashmir.
“The world of Cricket exists because of this log of wood. This is the sacred wand,” says Mushtaq Ahmed, owner of one of the largest bat making factories in town.
Willow wood is found nowhere else in the world apart from Kashmir and England. Any Willow Cricket bat in the world is made of wood from one of these two places. Due to the government’s strict regulations on preserving this wood, it has strived and continues to play an important role in the world of Cricket.
And to my surprise, the number of people who had turned up to work at the factory that day was exactly 11. Coincedence? Maybe not.
First, Willow wood is procured and inspected for age. More the circles on the log, the older, the greater its strength. The men get lost in this very indulgent process.
Second, the wood is cut into triangular pieces and kept out in the open to kiss the Kashmiri sun for six months.
The bats are then…. but wait, it’s time for some Sheesha! No work without a drag around here.
The handle is painstakingly cut from the log and is attached to the bat using industrial grade Fevicol, it is then left to stick together for 6 hours before being sent for compression and oiling. For Tennis bats, the process is much more simpler involving several quality checks.
Some bats are damaged during this intense process which are left with a metal cast around them. They are then given new pieces of wood in their broken edges (much like broken bones) and sealed off.
The finished bats go through a final round of hands; rubber to the handles, polish to the edges and fire to seal the lamination.
“Do you guys get to play Cricket at all?” I asked them wondering if they ever took a break..
“We never usually plan, go out and play together but since we are so indulged in the process, we usually end up playing every now and then. Kashmir has a lot of strikes and bandhs (more than holidays), and those are obviously the best days to play!” said Mushtaq with a rather big smile.
As I spent the last hour with these incredibly passionate men, taking a few drags of sheesha and coughing to its strength. I had found new respect for the hands that make these bats. Hands that are responsible for passion to not just play, but to make it an everyday routine. After all, Cricket in India isn’t just a sport, it is religion.
Mushtaq loved saying this with his proud eyes,
“Do we play Cricket? We MAKE Cricket!” And surely, we can all agree with him.