By Shahbaz M | Global columnist
For more than a decade, India and Pakistan have cut off their bilateral hockey relations. The reasons are varying – from the obvious political tensions to egoistic officials who govern the sport. Yet, rather inadvertently, Pakistan has played an important role in Indian hockey’s revival during this period.
Almost 90 percent of the hockey sticks used in India are imported from their neighbours; so much so that more than half of the national team uses them. Their reliance on Pakistani sticks can be gauged from the fact that, according to Indian government’s Department of Commerce, the imports have grown eight-fold in the last four years.
However, the fallout of the recent escalations between the two countries is seen on an unlikely, and largely unforeseen, front: the hockey fields. In February, a terrorist strike in Pulwama, Kashmir, killed 40 Indian paramilitary police. The attack was claimed by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad and in the aftermath, the Indian government lifted the Most Favoured Nation status given to Pakistan, opening the way for a surge in customs duty up to 200 per cent on goods from across the border.
That has had a direct impact on the hockey trade. Indian players and retailers, who prefer Pakistani sticks because they are cheaper compared to the ones in India or elsewhere, now have to pay twice the amount for the same product. Moreover, the prevailing sentiment and the wave of nationalism that has swept India post Pulwama has forced many to chuck Pakistani products.
So most retailers have either cancelled, or put on hold, the orders placed with their partners across the border. Gradually, as the supply chokes, the industry is starting to feel the pinch. The situation isn’t dire yet, but retailers fear it may worsen if things do not change in a couple of months.
It’s a unique scenario because India did not always have to look outside for hockey sticks.
Just before the Commonwealth Games last year, I spoke to Ramesh Kohli, the founder of Beat All Sports, whose Vampire brand is among the most sought-after in India. At the 1975 World Cup, the triumphant Indian team used sticks he manufactured – the Vampire brand, which is made in Jalandhar, the country’s sports goods manufacturing hub located in Punjab.
That trend continued till the turn of the century before the numbers took a nosedive. Till a decade ago, Kohli said his unit produced roughly 200 hockey sticks per day. Today, that number has dropped to less than 100. Kohli’s son Sanjay, who too is in the same business, cites the lack of availability of raw materials to manufacture composite sticks and declining public interest in hockey as reasons for the dwindling numbers.
As more and more schools began to focus on cricket, hockey started to fall off their priority list. Sensing higher profit margins, some of the biggest manufacturers drifted towards cricket equipment, which directly impacted the production of hockey sticks. Few hockey players are now supported by BAS, who instead sponsor some of the world’s top cricketers, including India captain Virat Kohli, South Africa’s Hashim Amla and West Indies’s Darren Sammy, among others.
Consequently, the Indians players have been forced to look outside the country for help, and Pakistan has turned out to be a preferred destination. The sticks made in Pakistan are considered to be technologically superior and cheaper compared to those available in India. A national team player told me that a ball hit with the best-available Indian stick travels at a speed of 80-90kmph whereas even the second-best Pakistani stick will send the ball flying at approximately 140kmph.
But it isn’t so straightforward. Due to the fickle public sentiment towards Pakistani products, Indian players and retailers want to avoid being seen using sticks from across the border. So they import ‘raw sticks’ and plaster labels of their own brands before putting them on sale in the domestic market. It’s a reason why Pakistani products like Malik and Ehsaan aren’t visible at all in India.
One brand that did not face such problems is Sachin Hockey. A Hindu name that is common across India, Sachin blended seamlessly with other local products, thus making it the most popular Pakistani label in the country.
The owner of Sachin is a 48-year-old Pakistani-Hindu, Ratan Lal. In 1947, amidst the mass-migration of people on both sides of the border during the partition of British India, Lal’s family had the option of moving to Delhi or Punjab, where most of his family lived. Instead, they chose to stay back in Sialkot.
His grandfather, Budamal, owned a fair-price shop and the business blossomed under his father. Lal was expected to take over the family business but he decided to step away from it in the late 1990s. Lal decided to become a part of Sialkot’s booming sports business and set-up a hockey stick manufacturing unit.
His rise coincided with the decline of the Indian industry in the mid-2000s. Today, Lal manufactures close to 9,000 hockey sticks every month in Sialkot out of which 1,500 are exported to India, with most of his clientele based in Jalandhar.
In February and March, though, that number has come down to zero because of the Indian government’s revision of trade policies. Indian makers, sensing an opportunity to reduce Pakistan’s stranglehold are upping their production to match the demand. Whether they can manufacture sticks of the same quality remains to be seen.
India and Pakistan may not have been playing against each other. But the tussle between the two nation’s sports goods manufacturing hubs, Jalandhar and Sialkot, is just as intriguing.