A desperate yell erupted right after the crisp, cracking sound broke the misty silence of the village: “Catch, catch”! It was World Cup 2015 time and reluctant as I was, I found myself dragged into the excitement. On the edge of the highway at Sangam, 42 km south of Srinagar, a cricket game between local boys came to a nail-biting crescendo. With oversized woollen pherans flapping at their knees, the thrilled winning team converged in the centre of the makeshift pitch. High fives and hugs ensued, while the other team looked dejected. With stooped shoulders and a forlorn face, the ousted batsman dragged himself to the remains of a white milestone which served as the pavilion. By now, the sporting action had enticed me out of the car and I was sitting on a neat stack of wood, waiting for the teams to change sides and the former bowlers to show their batting prowess.
The game came to a swift end and only when I got up, I noticed my perch closely. It was a low pile of willow planks. Behind me, thousands of unpolished willow bats lay in a grid-like stack, the wood kept aside for it to lose moisture. It was to be later polished and coloured for final touches. What was specifically eye-catching was a large board that announced the name of the proprietor — Dar — outside whose shop was the provisional cricket pitch. But the name was only minuscule in comparison to the photographs of Indian and Pakistani cricketers on the board. Virat Kohli, Shahid Afridi and Dhoni shared board space, each squinting in concentration. There was South African player, Hashim Amla too. Ironically, it was February 14 and India was slated to play Pakistan the next day.
Sangam is where thousands of cricket bats are made from the famous Kashmir willow and transported to different parts of the country. The village was where it all started when a bat maker from undivided India saw this as an ideal location to source raw materials. Sangam is still well-known for its abundant willow and poplar trees, both used to make the bats that found its way into the kit bags of hundreds of aspirants who take stance in the narrow lanes outside their homes. The bat industry is said to employ over 10,000 locals in and around Sangam. For years, a healthy supply of 5,00,000 bats used to leave Sangam for both Indian and international markets. The assortment consisted of both serious sporting equipment as well as fan paraphernalia in the form of short and light bats, with bright stickers pasted on them. India’s 2011 World Cup win led to a flourishing business, until the 2014 floods in the state dampened the supply chain, quite literally.
The 2015 semi-finals were scheduled for the day after my visit — India were supposed to take on Pakistan — but sparse orders had been placed through the tournament. The furrowed brows of manufacturers revealed a change in trend. Everyone now pegged their hope on the IPL to boost sales.
Like the peace dialogue between India and Pakistan, cricket too was in a limbo between the two sparring neighbours. The absence of cricketing ties had robbed fans — from the regular aficionados to infrequent viewers who only join in during electrifying matches — of some healthy banter and nail-biting finales. The fanatical rivalry was always propped on the foundation of a tenacious love of the game in both countries. A connection, which is ironically hard to ignore. Hatched from the same land, what would one expect?
Where cricket is concerned, it is popular perception that many bordering villages of India, along the edge of Pakistan, have deeper patronage to the “greens” across the border. Mohammed Dar, the second-generation batmaker and one of the first in the village who started a workshop, invited me into his dingy office. Amongst the sensitive topic of India vs Pakistan tug of war that locals face, he made me time-travel to how his business had begun. It was his grand-uncle who scouted Sangam as the sourcing hub for willow in the pre-Partition era. Naturally, a workshop came up close to the sourcing base and many locals picked up the trade. Though started by one family, the craft fed many homes in the village over decades. My cup of kahwah was diligently refilled till Dar traced the story of how his father shifted to Sangam across the border for business, but decided to stay on, not comprehending the full repercussions of the Partition. Dar was a young boy then. He wistfully looked out of the window at the setting sun. It was time to leave him at this poignant juncture, unsure as I was about prodding him on his memories of Pakistan.
While leaving, I was tempted to ask Dar who he would be supporting in the next day’s game. “Pakistan or India?,” I asked hesitantly. I only got a slight smirk in reply. I understood that his heart lies on both sides.
– Supriya Sehgal
Bangalore-based Supriya Sehgal is a freelance travel writer, who also does scripts for documentaries and TV shows.