Batting for Kashmir

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Moved by the cricketers not playing with Kashmir bats, a young professional quit his well-paid job to get made-in-Kashmir bats a reality in test cricket, reports Shakir Ashraf

Firdous Khan at work

In 2016, when Kashmir was on a boil over Burhan Wani’s killing, a young man resigned from a multinational company with the sole objective to take Kashmir cricket bat to the international market. Hailing from south Kashmir’s Pujteng   6 km away from Bijbihara, Firdous Khan, 28, has been a success despite setbacks.

Khan has done his MBA from the University of Kashmir. He later did his M Com through distance mode followed by diploma in International Business Operation.

Despite making the best efforts, Khan could not get a job in  Kashmir. So he so, moved to Delhi to find one.

“Initially I worked in some small companies but later I got a job in a reputed international company,” Khansaid. The company paid him a handsome salary until his goal to do something for the Kashmir bat industry brought him back to Kashmir.

Parents of Khan were in the sport’s business since the 1990s.  His father Abdul Hameed Khan, had a cricket bat workshop in his native village. His eldest brother, Showkat Khan was helping his father and their business was going on smoothly.

“We were making good profit but that was for ourselves, not for society. My goal was  to give recognition to our own willow,” said Khan, insisting that resigning from his job was not easy. “What if I would not get a job again or my plan will fail. Many similar questions were in my mind”.

Challenging Initiative

Finally, after taking his family into confidence, Khan left his job and flew home. He discussed his goals and aims with his younger brother, Sheeraz Khan. They discussed the grey areas and found solutions and eventually, it emerged as a team. They name their initiative Kashmir International Sports (KIS) and came up with a full cricket kit.

To motivate international players to use KIS’s bat was an extremely tough job but Khan was aware that it is the only key to success. However, he first raised the quality of Kashmir made bats. “In order to give the bats to international players I needed quality bats and for that English willow was the only option,” Khan said.

Jammu and Kashmir cricket team 2014

Getting an English willow was a challenge for him. Finally, after a lot of hard work, Khan got a direct supply of English willow. Another challenge was finding skilled labour. “We are hugely dependent on outside labour work. Unfortunately, we do not have skilled labour at all,” Khan said.

Right now, in his unit around 25 persons are employed but most of them are non-locals and taking care of them is “hectic work” for him. Khan said he requires 20 more people but due to lack of skilled labour, he could not fill these vacancies.

Another challenge for Khan is the time duration to dry the willow. “It takes up to a year to dry willow under sunlight and we need to protect the wood from wood boring insects. Our money gets blocked for a year, which is terrible,” said Khan.

Unlike Kashmir, the bat-makers in Meerut have seasoning plants that help in drying the willow just in 2 months and the quality of the bat remains fine. Now, Khan has installed the same plant in his unit and started manufacturing the bats.

The First Victory

Finally, he succeeded. In Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), KIS’s bats were used by players like Taijul Islam and it was Khan’s first victory. While following his aim, Khan got the opportunity to meet international players like Shahid Afridi, Shahzad, Daniel Vittori and many others. “After the match, people on social media were commenting about Kashmir and it was an amazing feeling,” Khan said.

In Kashmir, Khans’ decided to hunt for talented cricketers. They spent months to find the quality players and later KIS sponsored them.

Khan and his team continue to spread its network. In 2019 he went to Gulmarg and Pahalgam, the two most popular tourist spots of Kashmir. After talking with the locals they came to know that the decline in the number of tourists has badly affected their livelihood.

“I thought why can’t we organise snow cricket here. Here, we have more snow than Switzerland,” said Khan.

Snow Cricket

They organised a snow tournament for cricket which was going to be the first of its kind in Asia. He bore the expenses for it. In order to draw more spectators to the tournament, he invited international and Ranji players and agreed to take care of their accommodation, air tickets and other things.

In Gurez, boys play cricket on snow and create an amazing game,

Khan approached the government. He said that the initial response of the officials was slow but later they supported the idea.

All preparations were completed and the match was set on February 15, 2019. But, a day before the Pulwama suicide attack took place and Khan’s’planning came to nought.  However, this year Khan is planning to organise this tournament again.

Crisis Ridden Market

He spoke about many challenges the willow industry of Kashmir is facing like lack of labour and unavoidable disturbances such as Covid-19 lockdown.

“Due to continuous turmoil in Kashmir, labourers hesitate to come to the valley and tourists fear visiting here. So, how can this industry grow?” asked Khan. He also suggested ways to improve the willow industry.

Cricket Trail

According to Khan, the government should create willow banks and willows should be grown scientifically. “In England, willow is being cultivated for the sole purpose of bat manufacturing but, here there is nothing like that here,” said  Khan.

He also said that there should be a facility for “technical seasoning” so that raw material is not be kept under sunlight for a year.

“Seasoning plants should be installed here just like they have been installed in Meerut,” he said, adding also that there should be an uninterrupted power supply in the industrial sector. Khan also sought a ban on semi-finished cricket bats and on willow cleft smuggling.

“There is always a scope for doing better for society,” he said. “People, as well as government, should come forward and then we can expect this industry to prosper”.

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About Author

Shakir Ashraf is a Srinagar based journalist who covers conflict, crime, business and sports.

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