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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Absolut Bliss

Here's something I've been waiting to write all my life......

Back in 1990 when an aging England team, and Graham Gooch in particular--who scored a record 456 runs in a single test at Lord’s--decimated the Indian bowling attack, the English teacher at school gave us our most interesting summer vacation assignment ever. We were asked to write an essay on why the Indian team was beaten so badly. As naïve ten-year-olds in the pre live telecast, and in-depth Harsha Bhogle style pre and post match analyses, most of us came to a fairly straightforward conclusion: the Indian-made bats that our players used were simply not good enough. A Slazenger or Stuart Surridges in the hands of Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar could have made all the difference. Similar losses in Australia the next year lent further credibility to our desi bat theory.

Fifteen years on, India may only boast of a middling cricket team, but the bats certainly aren’t to be blamed. Nearly 90 per cent of all the bats and cricketing accessories sold around the world by any of the leading global brands is manufactured right here in India. That’s a degree of outsourcing monopoly which even the country’s IT and apparel sectors don’t enjoy.

England’s latest sensations Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen swept the ICC awards this week in Australia and their UK-based equipment maker Woodworm is set to become the fastest growing sports goods firm on the back a cricketing renaissance in England. The weapons the duo used to dismantle the Aussies come from a grimy, antiquated factory in Meerut, some 65-kilometres east of Delhi. But it’s a fact that neither Woodworm nor the Indian company it sources from would confirm. This factory nowadays is working overtime to supply Woodworm’s massive orders. Batmakers are chipping away at the willow edges to give Woodworm’s bats their unique, patented design. But the Indian manufacturer insists, with an impish grin that he doesn’t "make" overseas brands fearing cancellation of orders and expensive law suits.

Interestingly, Woodworm is one of those nimble footed, new age companies that’s using outsourcing to its advantage. The company reportedly has less than a dozen full-time employees and sources all the cricketing paraphernalia it sells from low-cost Indian firms. And as is the case with all the global apparel retailers like GAP and Tommy Hilfiger, Woodworm too is loath to disclose where it sources products from. Queries to Woodworm’s HQ in England about the company’s business model drew a blank.

For an Indian, the global cricket equipment business today is filled with delicious ironies. When the West Indies ‘blackwashed’ the England cricket team with monotonous consistently in the 1970s and 1980s it was considered the erstwhile colony’s great revenge on its former rulers who taught them the game. Now, the Indians have done one better. There was nothing more quintessentially English than a cricket bat. A bat had to be made from willow that grew in England, and the expert bat makers commonly known as pod-shavers were a tribe that existed only in the Old Blighty. Over 90 per cent of the worlds English willow or roughly four lakh pieces of the holy timber still comes from the JS Wrights & Sons farm in Essex. Indian firms during the last five years have become the largest buyers of this raw material, and England the biggest overseas market for cricket bats. The Indian pod-shavers today are considered the best in business.
“Bat making in England was largely a closely-knit family run business. It came to a standstill as the older generation of entrepreneurs moved out. Today all leading cricket firms and top cricketers recognise that the best bats are made in India,” says Jatin Sareen, the director at Sareen Sports Industries which makes the SS brand of equipment used by some leading players like Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly. SS employs close to 200 people at its three units located in Meerut and gets nearly 70 per cent of its revenues from exports. With sky-high labour costs in countries like UK and Australia, and the catchment market for cricket still fairly small compared to other sports like football or rugby, global brands have no choice but to outsource production to low cost countries like India. Sareen, a portly thirtysomething and a third generation businessman, talks excitedly about more than a dozen players in the current Indian team using SS bats, and how bats are tailor-made for each of them (Laxman uses a 1170 gram bat with double grip, while Ganguly prefers a 1300 grammer, the heaviest one bar Tendulkar’s), but he refuses to talk about specifications that other international players ask for. Disappointed, we move on to the country’s largest cricket company Sanspariels Greenland (SG), a brand endorsed for a long time by Sunil Gavaskar. Even today, SG’s Sunny Tonny range of bats, named after Gavaskar, is its largest selling in the domestic market.
SG’s factory stands out in many ways. Not just because it is the only cricket company in Meerut that has a large vinyl signage making its existence conspicuous. The company’s two-acre campus is a landmark on the Delhi-Meerut highway. Where others are content being cottage enterprises, SG sees itself as the big fish in the business. The company manufactures equipment for all the leading global brands you can think of—Grey Nicholls, Slazenger, GM, and Kookaburra--and doesn’t shy away from talking about it. Its young director Paras Anand has spent the last couple of days meeting up with a contingent of overseas buyers who have come to close a new deal. “We are expecting a big boom in our key market, England. After they’ve won the Ashes we are expecting a more than 50 per cent increase in cricket merchandise sales there,” he says. SG which has a capacity of producing nearly 500 bats a day would shortly shift to a newer office four times bigger.
But what I saw at SG’s production floor crushed my heart. A Grey Nicholls leg guard being made alongside Gunn and Moore; the same pair of hands making Slazenger and Kookaburra gloves; the same pod-shavers using a similar grade of willow to craft an SG bat and a Kookaburra. The raging debates that I sometimes still have with friends about the mythical superiority of Slazenger (remember, ‘King’ Richards wielded one) over Gunn and Moore and Hunt’s County would have to stop. With the Australian cricket season around the corner workers here are busy pasting Kookaburra stickers on the anemic pink surface of newly carved willows. “In the month of March, you’ll find more Grey Nicholls and Slazengers here,” says the production manager who is quite baffled with my sense of disappointment.
According to Paras Anand, Kookaburra, Australia’s largest cricket firm has only retained the production of Test-grade balls in its home country. “They source almost everything from us. Kookaburra is now just a marketing firm,” he says. The cost advantage is so huge in India that most leading manufacturers here operate on margins as high as 80 per cent. “In England and Australia it would cost as much as 20 pounds to fix a new handle to a bat. A new Indian made Kashmir willow bat costs as much or a little less,” says Anil Sareen, CEO Stanford Industries, another large Meerut-based equipment maker. And given the country’s large domestic market and the labour intensive nature of cricket equipment manufacturing (there’s very little mechanisation, and most products are still hand made) it looks like Indian blades would score runs for international teams for the foreseeable future. SG has even acquired the marketing rights from Slazenger and Kookaburra to sell the brands right here in India, starting November.
The large-scale shift towards exports over the last few years is not merely driven by the lure of hefty margins. In India, all the leading manufacturers have been pushed out of consumer conscience thanks to corporates like MRF, Britannia and Hero Honda entering sponsorship agreements with star players. “When it comes to the domestic market we rely heavily on aspirational buyers who are mostly school children who buy kashmir-willow bats priced at less than Rs 1,000. Now when they see their heroes using bats with Britannia and MRF stickers, they too would want to use them,” he explains. As a result India has witnessed spurious equipment flooding the markets. According Jatin Sareen’s estimates fake goods account for nearly 45 per cent of the country’s lower end bat sales. In the multi-crore sponsorship game original equipment manufacturers stand no chance against the corporates. “My last big signing was Vinod Kambli in the early 1990s who was paid Rs 1 lakh a year for using SS bats. Today, to be seen on the bats of Sehwag or Tendulkar, the asking price is more than Rs 3 crore,” he laments.
But surely, unlike my bunch of friends, the future generations of cricket-loving kids would not blame Indian brands when their icons fail.

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