From refugee camps to multimillion-dollar businesses: the story of India's bat-making industry
On a muggy late-September morning in Jalandhar's Bhargav Camp, I walked down a street, barely wide enough for a car and an autorickshaw to pass each other, lined with old one-storey homes. A tangle of electrical wires criss-crossed above. Ahead, cycle rickshaws plied the narrower routes. As I turned into an alley I saw an old woman, her hair white as an eggshell, sitting on a charpai outside her small brick home, stitching a football. Further down, I saw another woman on a charpai, stitching a football. I peeked inside a house and saw a middle-aged man in the hallway stitching - you guessed it - a football.
A dishevelled young man eyed me curiously.
"Isn't cricket equipment also made here?" I asked.
He nodded, and casually pointed to the house behind him. "I've been making cricket leg-guards for the past five years."
He procured the raw material, he said, from a small manufacturing company in a different part of Jalandhar. He then stitched up the pads and sent them back to the manufacturer, who applied the finishing touches - branding and packaging - and shipped it out to traders around the world.
This young man, those women on charpais, that man in the hallway, and several others hard at work behind closed doors are cogs in the country's sporting-goods manufacturing machine. Jalandhar and Meerut, about 350 kilometres apart, are the nerve centres of India's cricket equipment industry, estimated to be worth Rs 350 crores, or around US$53 million.
"Once the multinational companies came, they took charge and put their stickers on the bats. And they are ruining our industry"
"You never know how these things start," Suresh Rishi, the general manager of cricket-goods manufacturer FC Sondhi & Co, told me. "But it is said that a British man in Sialkot asked a local carpenter to repair his tennis racket." One thing seems to have led to another and by the early 20th century, Sialkot, about 160km north-west of Jalandhar, was one of the world's largest exporters of sporting goods.
When India split in 1947, so did the sporting-goods industry. Sialkot was part of Pakistan, and many of its businesspeople and craftsmen were among the millions displaced during Partition. When the refugees arrived in India, they had the most basic of goals: survival. But slowly they began to set up workshops in the homes they were allotted in refugee centres like Bhargav Camp, and began to rebuild their lives from scratch.
The story of India's cricket-goods industry is in many ways the story of its refugees from Sialkot. And one of the greatest success stories is of a refugee family that put down roots in Meerut and set up a company that would go on to become the largest producer of cricket equipment in the world.
A sputtering autorickshaw that I shared with six passengers came to a stop outside an unused airport in the village of Gagol, on the outskirts of Meerut city. Once I paid my fare and stepped out, the autorickshaw continued on its rickety way down the dusty two-lane road. Across from the airport, in a modern, leafy campus built on a nine-acre plot of land, stood the Sanspareils Greenlands (SG) factory.
The SG office in Meerut (top), and FC Sondhi & Co in Jalandhar
© Niyantha Shekar
The SG office in Meerut (top), and FC Sondhi & Co in Jalandhar © Niyantha Shekar
When brothers Kedarnath and Dwarakanath Anand left Sialkot during Partition - leaving behind their home, belongings and Sanspareils Co, the company they had established in 1931 - they didn't know that Meerut would become their new home.
"They went to Punjab first, then they went to Agra, and then they came to Meerut," Paras Anand, a third-generation director at the company, said to me. "People were allocated land and given some compensation. If that support wasn't there it would have taken the family a long time, but because people were compensated that really helped kick-start the business again."
Anand, an amiable man in his late 30s, sat behind a curved wooden desk in his plush office. The room had the hush of a luxury hotel, soft instrumental music playing in the background alongside the gentle thrum of an air-conditioner. A bat signed by the England team that toured India in 2001-02 leaned against a wall. Two other walls were mostly window, allowing natural light to stream in as plants from the garden lolled against the panes. From within Anand's office, it was hard to believe we were in Meerut, a city where the smoke-choked sky is perpetually grey.
Some credit for SG's rapid rise must be given to a man who, in a stroke of branding fortune, shared the same initials as the company: Sunil Gavaskar
Unlike smaller manufacturers who outsource work to household units, SG, with about 1000 workers and two factories, makes its products in-house and handcrafts more than 350,000 bats a year. This is a staggering number considering that the company - which originally produced only soft leather goods like gloves and pads - arrived relatively late to bat-making, at least a couple of decades after manufacturers like BD Mahajan & Sons Private Limited (BDM) and Sareen Sports Industries (SS).
Some credit for SG's rapid rise must be given to a man who, in a stroke of branding fortune, shared the same initials as the company. "Sunil Gavaskar was using our gloves even before we had a contract with him," Anand said. "In 1983, his cricket bat endorsement contract with Gray-Nicolls expired and we approached him. He liked our bats and signed a long-term agreement with us. That was the turning point."
It is a time-tested truth that there is a significant increase in a company's bat sales when a top cricketer sports the brand. But over the last ten years, with multinational companies (MNCs) like Nike and Adidas entering the bat-sponsorship scene, fewer cricketers are sporting the manufacturer's name on their bats.
"Earlier, if you had a good relationship with a cricketer and he liked the product, he would have an agreement with you irrespective of money," Anand said. "The product has become immaterial [to cricketers] now, it has just come down to how much you can pay."
Workers handcraft bats on the SG factory shop floor
© Niyantha Shekar
Workers handcraft bats on the SG factory shop floor © Niyantha Shekar
And companies are willing to pay astronomical sums to sign up top players. In September, New Balance, which sources its bats from FC Sondhi & Co in Jalandhar, signed Joe Root for £200,000 ($308,000) a year. In 2013, MS Dhoni signed a bat-sponsorship deal with Australian company Spartan Sports and the Indian education group Amity University for a combined sum of Rs 25 crore ($3.8 million) a year. To put this in perspective: SG's revenue for the 2012 fiscal year was only about four times that, at Rs 97 crore ($14.9 million), and SS, one of SG's chief competitors, earned Rs 35 crore ($5.37 million) in the same year.
For the longest time, the logo of the manufacturer would appear on a small sticker or as an engraving on the side or back of the bat. An observant spectator might have noticed that SG made the Britannia-branded bat that Rahul Dravid used to engineer India's famous Test win in Adelaide in 2003. Or that Dhoni's 2011 World Cup-winning six came off a Reebok-branded bat that was made by SS. But this has changed in the past couple of years, after the ICC amended its logo policy to stipulate that a bat can display only one manufacturer's brand. And according to ICC regulations, a company like Reebok is considered a manufacturer even if it actually procures bats from another company, as long as it makes its equipment available for sale to the general public.
On the surface, the relationship between manufacturers and huge multinational brands seems paradoxical. SG, for instance, produces bats not only under their own brand name but also for various international brands (though they weren't willing to reveal which brands they currently make bats for). Paradox or not, this arrangement plays a big role in SG's success.
The story of India's cricket-goods industry is in many ways the story of its refugees from Sialkot
"The [SG] factory is a separate entity which tries to continuously increase capacity irrespective of how our brand is doing," Anand said. "We have our own brand which is buying from the factory, and there are other brands which like the product we are supplying and want to buy from us. You will not see many other companies doing this, where you have a very strong Indian brand and you have some strong international brands that you are supporting."
But isn't SG competing with the brands they make bats for? Isn't this a problem?
"I wouldn't call it a problem, I would call it a challenge," Anand was quick to assert, easing into business-speak. "That is how the world is. Every domestic company faces this challenge. Our industry is not going to be an exception."
"The MNCs are ruining the industry," Rakesh Mahajan, who runs BDM, said to me unequivocally. Thirty-nine years ago, at the age of 14, he joined the company founded by his father in 1950, and worked in labour-intensive roles like bat-making to learn the trade. Since then he has tracked the industry from close quarters.
Rakesh Mahajan of BDM (top) and Paras Anand of SG
© Niyantha Shekar
Rakesh Mahajan of BDM (top) and Paras Anand of SG © Niyantha Shekar
I met the straight-talking 53-year-old Mahajan in BDM's factory, located in Meerut's nondescript Sports Complex, which is home to more than 30 manufacturing companies. These sit around a desolate rectangular park where trash is routinely set aflame atop overgrown grass.
"After Partition, they [local manufacturers] started from zero," he said, reminiscing about his own father's struggles to establish BDM with borrowed capital of Rs 400. In the 1950s the company hired seven workers and made 16 bats a day. Today BDM has more than 200 workers and makes 400 to 600 bats a day.
"And they [manufacturers] have done a lot for the industry," Mahajan continued. "But once the multinational companies came, they took charge and put their stickers on the bats. And they are ruining our industry."
BDM has taken a hard stand against making bats for other brands.
"They always come first to us," Mahajan said spiritedly, when I asked if the MNCs approached BDM to source their bats. "Then they go elsewhere. Because we deny. We don't accept them."
"We are scared if, in the coming times, we will find the labour. Jalandhar is very scarce of skilled labour"
He pointed to a poster behind him: a young Virat Kohli lifting the Under-19 World Cup in 2008. BDM sponsored Kohli through his teens, giving him two bats a year, only to see him sign a bat-sponsorship contract with a footwear giant once he achieved international success. Then in 2013, Kohli signed a deal worth Rs 6.5 crore ($1 million) a year with tyre manufacturer MRF.
"I cannot afford to pay Rs 8 crore to each player," said Mahajan. "MRF is paying 8 crores [sic] to each. We are nursing, free of cost, more than 2000 boys in India. BCCI or ICC is not doing anything for cricketers who can't afford equipment. We are there for them. But once the boy clicks, they [the MNCs] grab him by paying a lot of money. Where can we stand?"
What can BDM afford to pay cricketers then?
"Right now we cannot afford to pay them."
While Mahajan was bullish about his company's product - "If you talk about quality, nobody can beat us" - he admitted that profits were dipping (sales were down 40%, according to a recent report) and that the BDM brand wasn't as strong as before.
"It's very hard for us," he said in a resigned tone. "We cannot come up. We cannot make our own brand image when competing with these companies."
The sudden gloom in the room felt one with the dreariness of the Sports Complex. But Mahajan recovered to deliver a final shot at his rivals with deep pockets.
"Without weapons," he said, referring to the bats made in Meerut and Jalandhar, "they [the MNCs] are nothing."
JMS Cricket Gear, a small manufacturing company in Jalandhar's Leather Complex, sat in an underdeveloped neighbourhood where the roads were bumpy and weeds grow wild in open plots of land. The company's factory had a bare-bones feel to it, with exposed brick prominent. Inside, a craftsman sat on the floor, in front of a room full of Kashmir and English willow clefts, and affixed stickers to bats. One floor up, men and women sat at sewing machines, finishing up an order of dark blue kitbags. In another room, the afternoon light burst through a small window as a thin, mustachioed man worked on a pad with an ease that conveyed years of practice.
Spoilt for choice: sports shops dot Suraj Kund Road in Meerut
© Niyantha Shekar
Spoilt for choice: sports shops dot Suraj Kund Road in Meerut © Niyantha Shekar
"The major drawback is that the cricket goods are not machine-made," said Vikas Mahajan (no relation to BDM's Rakesh Mahajan), who runs the company with his brother Vivek, a former Punjab Ranji Trophy player. "We are scared if, in the coming times, we will find the labour. Jalandhar is very scarce of skilled labour."
Across the board - from household units to the biggest manufacturers - cricket goods are handcrafted. A skilled worker is more adept than a machine when it comes to dealing with the inconsistencies in the raw material, like a willow cleft, whose character can vary based on factors like the timing and extent of rain. Further, a machine can only produce a cricket bat with a fixed shape and weight, SG's Anand said. A craftsperson could, however, spend more time with the bat and refine it to meet different requirements.
"Not anyone can do it. It's a dying art," Vikas Mahajan said. "Here a worker normally earns Rs 7000 [$107] per month. Their kids would rather be salesmen at a mall than sit in front of a machine and work a lot."
"Earlier, if you had a good relationship with a cricketer and he liked the product, he would have an agreement with you irrespective of money"
This is a major concern for an industry that relies so heavily on skilled labour. FC Sondhi & Co in Jalandhar rents out community centres in neighbouring villages to teach skills and encourage involvement in the industry. But the economic landscape has changed in the decades since the cricket-goods industry took hold in India, and so have the interests and ambitions of the younger generation.
The contrast was stark on my final evening in Meerut. I walked along Suraj Kund Road, where almost every inch of retail space seemed to belong to one sporting-goods dealership or the other.
Hind Sports. Manglik Sports. Vishwa Sports. Prudent Sports. Ashoka Leg Guard Works. Excellent Sports Industries. General Sports Industries…
Hidden from view, though, were the narrow lanes of Hanuman Puri, where middle-aged men and women churned out equipment that later made its way to the shelves of these sports stores and those around the country.
The first thing I noticed as I walked the lanes of Hanuman Puri was the relative quiet. There was the sound of a bhajan playing from rooftop speakers, and the place felt like an oasis of calm compared to the cacophonous main streets that chugged along to a relentless soundtrack of engines and honking.
Home-cum-office: a bat-maker in Hanuman Puri, Meerut
© Niyantha Shekar
Home-cum-office: a bat-maker in Hanuman Puri, Meerut © Niyantha Shekar
The workshop shutters were down and the doors of houses, which doubled up as bat-making and stitching units, were shut. I didn't want to knock on a random door, so I asked Anil Tyagi, an old man sitting outside his house, where I could find someone who made cricket equipment.
"Why, I make cricket bats," Tyagi announced, and led me down a road that was lined with stacks and stacks of poplar clefts used to make bats for tennis-ball cricket. More poplar stood in his huge backyard, which was awash in wood chips. As I stepped into the yard, I heard the loud whir of mechanised saws. Six men in sweaty vests were slicing V-shaped inlets in the clefts. Once the handles were glued into these gaps, the bats would be transported to another house, where they would be polished, branded and finally shipped to traders.
Tyagi claimed that he could deliver up to 600 semi-finished bats a day. Yet he complained that his business wasn't doing as well as it used to. He said demand had dropped.
It was a complaint I heard from many manufacturers. They said the golden period for cricket-goods manufacturing in India was from 2008 to 2013. The number of youngsters playing cricket increased thanks to the popularity of the IPL, which began in 2008, and India's World Cup win in 2011. According to SG's Anand, there was a 15% to 20% year-on-year increase in demand during this phase. But the growth has slowed to 5% in the last two years combined. Manufacturers cited various reasons for this drop: too much cricket on TV; kids taking to other sports; and lack of significant growth in developing markets like the United States and Canada.
Tyagi had a theory too. "Look around you on the streets," he said. "Do you see any children playing? They are all on their cell phones now."
"So what brought you to this industry?" I asked.
His answer was simple.
"This is our local skill in Meerut, isn't it? It's what we do."
Niyantha Shekar is a freelance writer and photographer
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