World Cup gives Kashmir bat industry shot in arm

Willow business is booming yet most people in troubled Indian state will be hoping Pakistan reach final today

Along the tree-lined road that passes through here, it is impossible to miss the factories that earn this town its keep.

Building after building is buzzing with the sound of machines and clouded by plumes of sawdust. At the rear stand pallets of blond-coloured cricket bats, stacked high.

The cricket-bat industry of Awantipora is a major source of equipment for India's voracious sporting goods market and an important source of income for the economy of the troubled state of Kashmir. In this town alone, more than 5,000 people are employed shaping, sanding and finishing the blades the place is famous for. Around three million are produced every year.

This year business has been better than usual. The World Cup, which is now reaching its climax, has been responsible for a healthy leap in sales over the last couple of months of around 15 to 18 per cent.

The manufacturers are hoping the increase holds up once the competition is over. "Our monthly sales are up right now," said Nazim Ahmed, who in his youth fancied himself as something of a batsman and who now serves as president of the state's Cricket Bat Manufacturers' Association.

"Before, we only sold to the domestic market but now we have started exporting as well."

One of the ironies, of course, is that while the manufacturers may be hoping India reach the final today by beating Pakistan and thereby bolster sales even more, most youngsters in Kashmir, if asked to name their favourite player, will pluck someone from the Pakistan team. Several times The Independent heard children playing with a simple bat and ball in the streets of nearby Srinagar say they wished to emulate the skills of Pakistan's captain, Shahid Afridi.

The nod towards Pakistan, though not universal, is the result of many decades of agitation for autonomy within Kashmir, a struggle that has seen the spread of knee-jerk anti-Indian sentiment just as the presence of troops and security forces has grown. But beyond that, many cricket enthusiasts here believe the state's sportsmen have suffered as a result of discrimination towards Kashmir.

"Kashmir is famous for bowlers. We have good physique. We are tall. We also eat meat. But no one has ever played for the national side,"said Abid Khan, a sports reporter with the Greater Kashmir newspaper.

Among those players he said had been knocking on the door of the national side were Abdul Qayoom, who hit his peak two decades ago, and Abid Nabi Ahengar, a young 6ft 2in paceman who was called up for training when Greg Chappell was coach of the India side five years ago. Neither ever made it to the first team.

Qayoom believes he suffered because his moment came in 1989-1990, just as a violent armed struggle – partly funded by Pakistan – was picking up, and it became politically inconvenient to select him. "At that time, it was the militancy," he said

With the political temperature having cooled markedly in recent years and with officials seeking to promote Kashmir as a tourist destination, so the bat manufacturers of Awantipora hope they can also cash in on the peace dividend. While most professional players prefer bats made of the lighter English willow, the Kashmiri manufacturers point out that two members of the India team – Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh – use locally made products.

"Kashmiri willow is very hard. It's because of the climate," said Saleem Paray, whose family-run business has seen sales increase by up to 150 per cent this year. "We have up to 30 people coming here every day to work. Our grandfather started the business."

Ahmed, of the manufacturers' association, said the industry had grown up in the aftermath of Kashmir becoming part of India in 1947.

One reason was the easy availability of the willow, which lines the roads. "Kashmir is the most important place for making bats in India," he added. "And the World Cup is good for business."

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