South India’s lone bat-making firm eyes IPL to boost sales

South India’s lone bat-making firm eyes IPL to boost sales

In a 5,000 sq. ft shed near Pannimada, about 15km from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, half-a-dozen workers compact, shape and polish wood imported from England on machines made in Australia and Italy.

Once the wood is ready, they affix Indonesian cane spliced with about a dozen rubber sheets at one end, in an oval shape. When it’s done, what emerges is a sinuously sloped slab of English willow with a handle at one end: a cricket bat that could possibly end up in the hands of such luminaries of the game as Sachin Tendulkar or Ricky Ponting.

But, more than that, the singular distinction this small manufacturing unit called BatCraft enjoys is that it is the only bat-making company in all of southern India. BatCraft was launched in 2001 by J.K. Mahindra, a former cricketer and now its managing director, with an initial investment of Rs1 crore.

The bulk of cricketing goods in India are made in Jalandhar in Punjab and Meerut in Uttar Pradesh.

According to Ravi Purewal, director of the Jalandhar-based Sports Goods Foundation of India, the industry is worth about Rs2,700 crore, of which cricket bats make up just Rs38 crore. Sports goods exports earn about Rs500 crore, and bats account for roughly Rs15 crore.

BatCraft is a supplier to MRF Tyres, which provides bats to cricketers across the world, and runs the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai that trains fast bowlers.

As much as 70% of the bats made by BatCraft are exported, to be branded later. The company’s own brand, which cost about Rs6,000 to Rs7,000 on average, are sold locally to cricket clubs, universities and colleges. Firms such as MRF order bats to certain specifications such as the weight, len-gth, width of the blade, slant or handle length used and do not disclose the names of the players they are meant for.

Two varieties of willow wood are used in the manufacture of cricket bats—Kashmir willow and English willow. International cricketers generally prefer the English variety, because it is more lightweight and durable though considerably more expensive.

The small number of bats made here, explains Mahindra, is because of a shortage of English willow, which is imported for about £40 (Rs3,000) to make each bat, excluding a 25% tariff and transportation costs. “It takes at least 15-18 years for the willow tree to mature. We are now getting willows planted in the early 90s," he says.

After the Jammu and Kashmir government in 2000 banned the inter-state transportation of willow used for the manufacture of bats in Jalandhar and Meerut, there has been a severe crunch, says Purewal. The ban was to protect the forests where willow grows because, unlike in England, Kashmir does not have willow plantations. Even in England, willow is grown in limited areas.

“It is the quality of the wood that gives the sound like a musical note when the ball is hit," said Mahindra, a former player for Kerala in the domestic Ranji Trophy between 1967 and 1980, as well as the first player from that state to play for India’s under-19 team.

Mahindra decided in 2001 to tap contacts he had made with willow planters in the UK during his overseas travels to start the business, which was partially funded with capital from four friends, all of them cricketers.

Mahindra is hoping domestic sales will rise once the company starts selling bats under its own brand, and if it’s able to tie up with corporate houses that sponsor cricket teams. “The Indian Premier League 20Twenty Cricket is one area we are looking at where a number of big business houses have come in where we can display our brand. Talks are on with some of them," he said, declining to give details.