Imagine a perfectly executed cover drive in a packed stadium—the bat swinging down in a high arc, the sweet crack of bat meeting ball before it races away to the boundary to loud cheers of the spectators. The runs that a cricketer accumulates are as much about his skills as they are about the perfect cricket bat crafted from perfectly mature willow. The scenic hills of Kashmir, where the snow runs deep in winters and the summers are mellow, are home to the Kashmir willow, the tree from which comes some of the best cricket bats in the world, considered on a par with, if not better than, the English willow. And budding cricketers of India walk out to dusty fields wielding bats made of Kashmir willow to hone their skills that would one day perhaps ensure them a place in their state or national teams. International cricketers may prefer bats made of the much lighter English willow, but for junior players it has invariably always been the ubiquitous BDM, SG or SS bats made of home-grown willow.
But the Kashmir willow no longer carries the punch it was once famous for. Far-reaching political upheavals coupled with several other factors have pushed Kashmir’s willow industry to the brink of extinction, say people involved in the business—from farmers who grow the Kashmir willow to bat manufacturers, and those in between. In the willow-growing areas, the inferior quality poplar is replacing the Kashmir willow tree, which takes much longer to mature—15 to 20 years compared to less than 10 years a poplar takes to be ripe and ready to cut. Besides, lack of infrastructure; absence of technical know-how that increases the cost of bats; smuggling of clefts—blocks of wood dried in the sun for up to six months—from Kashmir; indifference of successive governments, both at the Centre and the state; high rate of GST (12 per cent for bats); and the 2014 floods have also dealt a telling blow to the bat-making business.