Jalandhar: Sat Pal sits hunched over a small tub of glue, dips in a cylindrical mesh, rolls it over the head of a hockey stick, then presses firmly into the wood. Finally, just to be sure it holds, he slips a condom over the whole thing.
For the past five years, Pal has worked this specialized job at RK Sports Pvt. Ltd, a Jalandhar-based hockey equipment maker: unravelling condoms over sticks.
Despite crores upon crores of rupees spent on advertising and branding of sports and their stars, the making of equipment—cricket bats to hockey sticks—has remained the same low-technology affair for decades. As the World Cup wages on, scientists and manufacturers in this city so linked to sport hope to change that, on the premise that better tools might make better teams.
RK Sports, which sells its products under the Rakshak brand name, has made a small breakthrough of its own. It is believed to be the only Indian company that manufactures composite hockey sticks, moulded of synthetic fibres, so the stick feels lighter and shoots faster. The condoms, however, are used to make wooden sticks that retail for Rs900. “We are talking of a tech-gap,” director Sanjay Kohli says. “This is an example of trying to bridge that gap.”
Scientists at the B.R. Ambedkar National Institute of Technology have begun a study to identify such technology gaps so the cottage industries can be turned into globally competitive manufacturers.
In Kohli’s factory, the finishing of a hockey stick head is a three-week affair that ends with the condom treatment. First, layers of mulberry wood are boiled for several hours to soften and the pieces bent into a curve at a mould. Seven pieces are then glued to make one stick head, then heated in a furnace over 20 days. Finally, Pal and his box of deluxe condoms take over. The condom is kept over the mesh for anywhere from seven to 24 hours, depending on the season.
At the Beat All Sports factory, which often supplies premium cricket bats to Indian cricketers, similar methods are used. For instance, workers manually shave and shape peices of wood into regular bats, and it is his 24 years’ experience that Sanjay Kohli’s uncle Somi, director, uses to judge product quality—he weighs the bats, makes a physical check of the alignment as well as smoothness of the edges and finally takes a stance as a batsman would and sees if he can swing with ease.
The Kohli family history is linked to sport. After Partition in 1947, they joined many Punjabi families in migrating from Sialkot to Jalandhar, bringing along their skills of making sports gear. They and others have helped turn the city into India’s largest sports manufacturing hub, generating an estimated Rs300 crore annually.
Today, large sports goods companies such as Adidas, Reebok and Mitre outsource production to Jalandhar. But they also make sports equipment in China and Taiwan. Manufacturers say they have been seeking government aid.
For the wooden sticks, Sanjay Kohli said he heard about the condom method from German buyers—and says the Rs4,000 he spends monthly on the Deluxe Nirodh brand of condoms has sent production costs soaring by 15%. Kohli makes about 3,500 hockey sticks a month, but needs the extra supply—Pal often tears a few, after all. “I am a manufacturer, not a scientist,”Kohli said.
“For years we have been asking for a research and development centre. Where is it?”