It’s 1974. The West Indies cricket team is touring India. They are a team on the brink of creating history. Clive Lloyd has just taken over the captaincy, and the side is bristling with talent. Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Alvin Kallicharran and Andy Roberts are in the squad.
A year later, they will win the first ICC Cricket World Cup. A decade later, they will forge their names in cricketing history as the most masterful team ever to play the game. But right now, on this December day in 1974, the team is lounging around in a small, nondescript factory in Meerut called Sanspareils Greenlands, giving measurements for custom-made pads and gloves. Triloknath Anand, son of founder Dwarkanath, then a strapping 28-year-old trainee with elaborate mutton chops and a handlebar moustache, is on hand to help.
Thirty-eight years later, Anand is the clean-shaven, bespectacled director of Sanspareils Greenlands, better known as SG, the world’s largest manufacturer of cricket gear.
“We had a small party, some beer, which they loved,” Anand says. “And then we stopped entertaining teams. No use, you see.” No use, because SG’s products—bats, balls and protective gear—are so much in demand that they’ve been unable to meet market requirements since the 1980s. “When I joined the company in the early 1970s, we were on a growth trajectory,” Anand says, “and we are still on it.”
SG, now operating out of a swank new office and manufacturing unit in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, is a legendary name in cricket gear. Every Indian cricketer from 1983 onwards has used or endorsed their product at some point. Some, like Sunil Gavaskar, remained loyal to the brand throughout their careers. In 1987, Gavaskar became the first person to reach the 10,000-run mark, using an SG bat, giving the company a picture-perfect ad campaign. In 1992, SG became the official ball suppliers to The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for all domestic matches, and since 1994, all Test matches in India have been played with SG balls.
SG began life in a small manufacturing unit in Sialkot in 1931, when brothers Dwarkanath and Kedarnath Anand decided to diversify the family leather business into manufacturing and exporting sports gear. By the time World War II broke out, SG had 250 people working in its unit, and it continued through the war years. “We were exporting goods worth Rs 14-15 lakh back then,” Anand says.
But what the war could not knock down, Partition did.
It’s 1947, and Dwarkanath’s family is holidaying in the hill resort of Kud in Kashmir when Pakistan and India are officially severed from each other. The family is told not to go back to Sialkot, now in Pakistan, and to move to Amritsar instead.
Dwarkanath, who was not on the trip, stayed put in Sialkot, hoping the situation would resolve quickly. It didn’t. It was only when Dwarkanath’s last remaining neighbour, a judge, moved out, and Dwarkanath was asked to move to a refugee camp, that reality dawned.
“It was bloodshed everywhere,” Anand says, taking wild swings with an imaginary knife. “We lost everything, our house, our factory—we were lucky to be alive.”
The Anands drifted from Amritsar to Delhi, then to Mathura, and then Agra. “We were refugees in our own country,” Anand says. “It was a horrible abuse word for us—refugees.” Finally, in 1950, many industrialist families uprooted from Sialkot managed to negotiate space and financial help from the government to re-establish their factories in Meerut. Dwarkanath began from scratch, with two stitching machines and a dozen employees to make footballs and other leather sporting goods. “No one in my family wanted to speak about the Partition,” Anand says. “They wanted to forget, they wanted us to forget and move forward,” he says.
The 1950s and 1960s were decades of struggle for SG, which did not have its own brand yet, but was still manufacturing for and exporting to foreign sports companies. “We were producing little, making little money, and conditions were harsh,” Anand says. “We were paying import duties of up to 330% on raw material. The socialist ideals we began with were good, but perhaps it went on for too long.”
But SG braved it, and in 1972 even launched its own brand of protective cricket gear called Featherlite. There was no money for expansion, yet SG’s products were booked out for seven-eight months. “But we had plans ready, we knew the market would open up,” says Anand. “And then, you see, there’s luck.”
That luck kicked in as the 1980s began. As industrialized nations moved away from artisanal production, developing nations like India stepped in. Cricket bats and balls demand highly skilled craftsmanship, and SG began manufacturing them, slowly moving away from other sports. In 1982, they launched bats, pads, gloves and balls under their own brand name. In 1983, India won the ICC World Cup, and the country was gripped with cricket fever. “That victory had a massive impact,” says Anand. “Our sales went berserk. Sports shop owners, cricketers, were coming to our factory and saying ‘Jitna maal hai bhej doh (Send us everything you have)’.” The same year, SG opened a second manufacturing unit, and Wasi Ullah Khan, a former state-level cricketer, joined as junior manager. Khan, along with Anand and his brother Kailash, began working on international-standard balls. By 1992, they had convinced the BCCI to use SG balls for all Ranji matches, before making the jump to Test cricket.
At SG’s newest manufacturing unit in Meerut, set up in 2008, hundreds of craftsmen focus on minute details. Rows of men stitch seams with furious flair. Bats are being sculpted out of blocks of wood in a cacophony of humming, sawing and hammering. Showers of pale gold wood shavings fill the air. A board says in bold: “Today’s production 1,417 bats.” Some among these will make their way to Virender Sehwag to hammer sixes. SG now supplies 2,400 Test balls and 3,000 tournament balls a year to the BCCI, and churns out an average of over 1,000 bats a day. SG also crafts for major international brands. Their recipe for success is simple—precision, skill and quality control. “There are no short cuts,” says Khan, 63, who rose from being chief ball inspector to director of production. “It takes between one to two years to get people to a place where they can make the best stuff. Which is why we have just over a thousand workers here, all salaried with
SG has been running an in-house training programme since the late 1960s, and every new employee is apprenticed to a master craftsman. “Mechanization’s not possible yet,” Khan says. “There are just too many variables machines can’t handle. You need people who can feel the wood, or leather. No international player will play with a machine-made bat.”
Salauddin Saifi, 28, is one of the master bat makers here. He comes from a family of carpenters, and was Khan’s apprentice 10 years ago when he joined SG. “I can pick up a wood and tell you how long it will last,” Saifi says. “I go home and I spend time feeling the balance of bats, and studying grains on wood.” Saifi customizes bats for India’s middle-order batsman Suresh Raina, among others. “He likes lightweight bats with thick edges,” Saifi says. “He will come here and spend a lot of time knocking the surface of the bat and listening for the perfect sound.”
Saifi picks up a finished bat and raps it with his knuckles. “See that sharp crack of a sound? That abrupt ‘TAK’ like gunfire? That’s a good bat.”