Kashmiri cricket bats bridge Indo-Pak divide

Published: Friday, November 10, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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Halmulla:In a corner of revolt-hit Kashmir, one village works quietly to craft willow cricket bats that bridge a bitter divide between the Muslim-majority state and the rest of India.

Imran Dar, 27, makes about 25,000 cricket bats a year that are painstakingly crafted from willow and dried for seven months at his family-run shop just south of Indian Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar.

The bats are exported to the rest of India from Kashmir, where many Muslims cheer for India's rival Pakistan, especially since the two teams resumed playing in each other's countries following an almost decade-long gap after a new peace process was launched in 2004.

Cricket has since taken on a proxy role in the Kashmir Valley where Muslims burst firecrackers whenever Pakistan defeats India while the opposite occurs in the Hindu-dominated south of the state, which both countries claim and hold in part.

But though he is Muslim, Dar said in an interview he prays for India to win.

"Purely for commercial reasons we always pray for India's win. The orders for Kashmiri bats come in bulk from different parts of India after each win," Dar said in an interview in his busy shop as workers added the finishing touches to bats.

Dar's bats are sold in the Indian capital New Delhi, commercial capital Mumbai and the southern city of Chennai.

Almost every family in the Muslim village of Halmulla and 15 other adjoining hamlets are involved in making cricket bats and showrooms on the road through town showcase an amazingly wide variety of models.

Bilal Ahmed, a teenager working in his father's factory, A.G. Sons, says an Indian win "provides a huge push to our business".

"When India wins everyone wants to play cricket and we are the clear winners," Ahmed said, as he posed beside a giant six-foot (1.8-metre) long cricket bat.

Cricket diplomacy was launched anew when India played in Karachi in April 2004 for the first match between the teams on either's soil since 1996.

The first match, a thriller that came down to the last ball, helped heal sharp wounds between the nuclear rivals that have fought two wars over Kashmir and retain a heavily-militarised ceasefire line down the centre of the state.

In Kashmir however, where the insurgency against Indian rule has claimed more than 44,000 lives since 1989 as almost a million troops and members of a dozen militant groups wage daily battle, Muslim sentiment is behind Pakistan's cricketers.

"Kashmiri Muslims support Pakistanis because of religous proximity," says local cricketer Manzoor Ahmed, a Kashmir native.

Still, it's not the faces of Pakistan's cricketers that adorn the shops of Halmulla, but Indian stars Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.

Swashbuckling wicketkeeper-batsman Mahendra Dhoni is another favourite.

"As Dhoni is a rage these days, bats with his name sell like hot cakes," Ahmed said as an Indian tourist bargained for a pair of Dhoni bats.

The cricket bat industry in Kashmir employs around 10,000 people and collectively exports nearly a million bats at prices ranging from 100 to 700 rupees (two to 15 dollars).

Imran Dar's father Ghulam Mohammed, 55, said Kashmiri bats are renowned within India for their high quality willow, but they have still not found favour abroad among international players.

"They prefer English willow (which) is light, hard and known to impart more power," said Dar, who has been in the business for 30 years.

Aside from the English competition, the Kashmir cricket bat is threatened by the encroaching depletion of local willow resources.

"The government is not going for fresh willow plantations. Whatever we have will be exhausted in two to three years. I fear this industry will collapse if immediate steps are not taken," said Majeed Dar, head of the Sports Goods Manufacturing Association of Kashmir.

"People are more interested in cultivating fast-growing poplar than willow," said Dar, adding that willow planks and bat-sized blocks are being smuggled to the neighbouring state of Punjab - where a thriving sports goods and apparel industry is geared mostly towards exports - despite a ban.

One of India's first sporting goods factories was set up in Jammu, Kashmir's southern winter capital, in 1938 by the state's then ruler Maharaja Hari Singh who was an ardent cricket fan.

Indian Kashmir also hosted two one-day internationals - between India and the West Indies in 1983, and between India and Australia in 1986 - before the ongoing insurgency.


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