Hit for six

Even as cricket fever grips the Indian subcontinent, manufacturers of Kashmiri bats are on a sticky wicket. The reason for their precarious position: the valley's dwindling willow plantation cover.

"The economics of willow cultivation has spawned the crisis,' points out Nazir Ahmad Salroo, the president of the Jammu and Kashmir Sports Goods Manufacturers' Association. While willow fetches farmers Rs 140 to Rs 150 per cubic feet as compared to poplar's rate of Rs 70 to Rs 75 per cubic feet, the longer growth cycle of the former is driving down its production. "A willow tree takes 10 to 12 years to mature. Poplar varieties, on the other hand, attain the required girth in half the time. With the farmers eyeing quick gains, poplar scores over willow,' explains Salroo. Experts corroborate this view. "Profitability determines the interests of farmers,' reveals P Patanaik, principal chief conservator of forests, Jammu and Kashmir (j&k). Most of the willow plantation in Kashmir is done on private tracts.
In the doldrums According to reliable estimates, there are 25-30 lakh willow trees in Kashmir at present. The manufacturers need 1 lakh willow trees to make 15 lakh bats annually. The state's bat industry has an annual turnover of Rs 30 crore and provides employment to 30,000 people. Additionally, Rs 20 crore is generated every year by exporting 2 lakh willow clefts to other states.

One of the most common species of Kashmir willow is Pinus walichiana . "The shortage of raw material (willow) has created a peculiar situation,' laments Salroo. "If the demand is for 100 a-class willow clefts, we get only 50. The rest are substandard because their girth is less than 15 inches