The faceoff between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attack has led to an unforeseen fallout on an unexpected front – the hockey fields. With India lifting the Most Favoured Status (MFN) given to Pakistan, opening the way for a surge in customs duty up to 200 per cent on goods from across the border, among the hardest hit is the maker of Sachin, the popular hockey stick brand from Sialkot, a sports goods manufacturing hub.
“India is our biggest market. We manufacture close to 9,000 hockey sticks every month in Sialkot. Of them, 1,500 are exported to India, with most of our clientele based in Jalandhar,” says Ratan Lal, owner of Sachin.
Over the last two weeks, the businessman says, he has made “anxious phone calls” to his family and business partners in Delhi and Gurdaspur. “Last month, I got calls from my clients who have put all deals on hold. In the prevailing circumstances, they are not keen to import our product,” he says.
The production of high-end sticks in India has gone down drastically after some of the biggest manufacturers drifted towards cricket equipment because of the high profit margin it offers. Consequently, Indian hockey players have been forced to look outside the country for quality products and Pakistan has turned out to be a preferred destination.
According to the Department of Commerce, the import of hockey sticks from Pakistan has grown eight-fold in the last four years. The value of sticks imported from Pakistan was estimated at just Rs 24.48 lakh in 2015-16. That has increased to almost Rs 2 crore in the current financial year (up to December 2018). Pakistan, in fact, accounts for almost 90 per cent of India’s total hockey stick imports, with Taiwan a distant second.
A senior India player, requesting anonymity, said the sticks crafted in Sialkot are of superior quality compared to the ones made in Jalandhar, the Indian sports manufacturing hub. “Earlier, it was easy to get a good quality Indian stick but that has changed in the last few years. It’s hard to find a good hockey stick that’s made in India. The ones made in Pakistan are cheaper and technologically better,” says a player who was a regular in the Indian team till recently.
“A ball hit with the best available Indian stick travels at a speed of 80-90 kmph whereas even the second-best Pakistani stick will send the ball flying at approximately 140kmph. There is a vast difference in quality,” said a former chief coach of the Indian men’s team.
The decline of the Indian industry coincided with Lal, whose family owned a couple of grocery stores, establishing his brand in the mid-2000s. Sachin is now the most popular Pakistani brand in India, with Malik and Ehsaan being other sought-after sticks.
Sanjay Kohli, the owner of Jalandhar-based Rakshak Sports, says the difficulty in acquiring raw materials needed to manufacture composite sticks is one of the reasons for the dwindling numbers in India. Declining public interest, he adds, has also contributed.
Kohli’s father, Ramesh, founded Beat All Sports (BAS), whose Vampire brand is among the top-selling ones in the country. Last year, Kohli Sr had said all members of India’s 1975 World Cup-winning hockey team played with Vampire sticks. Today, only a handful of them use it. BAS, instead, has started to focus more on cricket and is now among the world’s top cricket equipment companies and sponsors players like Virat Kohli, South Africa’s Hashim Amla and West Indies’ Darren Sammy.
Kohli, however, insists the recent performances of the men and women’s hockey teams have reversed the trend. “Last year, we made just 70-75 hockey sticks every day,” Kohli says. “But there has been an increase in demand so we have increased our production to around 125 sticks per day.”
Will that be enough to meet the domestic demand, especially after the sudden halt of Pakistani imports? “It is an opportunity,” Kohli says. “Indian manufacturers have a chance to control the market once again.” Lal, meanwhile, is hoping that matters would settle down soon.
“In 1947, my grandfather Budamal had the option of moving to Delhi or Punjab,” Lal says. “But our house, business… everything was in Sialkot. It’s our home. But over the years, some of my clients in India urged me to settle in Delhi, where my extended family stays. But it hasn’t crossed my mind… My grandfather made a decision during Partition. It’s my duty to follow it. The last few weeks have been tense. But eventually, we hope things will be okay. We are businessmen, we will always want peace.”