The writer visits Sialkot and meets a major sports goods manufacturer there to learn about the production of cricket bats and the business in general.
The Brazuca’s entry into the 2014 FIFA World Cup was a milestone for Sialkot. This eastern city of Pakistan has been known as the country’s best when it comes to the production of sporting goods. It chips in an estimated $1.65 billion annually through exports.
For those who are still wondering what on Earth a ‘Brazuca’ is, it was the official football used during the World Cup hosted by Brazil last year. Unlike a stitched ball, a Brazuca comprises six panels thermo-bonded together.
Ranked 159th back in 2014, Pakistan’s football team couldn’t dream of representing the country at arguably the world’s biggest sport carnival, but it was a tremendous turnaround for Khawaja Masood Akhtar and his company — Forward Sports — as it managed to win a contract for producing the footballs for it. But football isn’t the only sport Pakistan is a proud producer of.
Sialkot’s sport industry has been a source of pride for many countrymen. While many of us cannot forget the days of glory in the past when Pakistan used to be a force in hockey, it would be surprising to know that we still are — but through other means.
Pakistan hockey team’s performances on the field might be embarrassing, but the hardworking labourers in Sialkot’s many factories are keeping their sprits high.
Though I wasn’t able to get any official figure of hockey gear production, but the word on the streets of Sialkot remain that a majority of Kookaburra — world’s leader in sports goods — are being produced and exported by Anwar Khawaja Industries and MT Techniques.
But no matter how much football and hockey goods are being exported to the world, cricket will always be on top in Pakistan.
A mere also-ran in football and now in hockey, too, Pakistan always remained an authority in cricket. Sialkot, blossoming with the business of production of different sports gear, continued to be ruled by consumers’ demand for cricket.
My love for cricket took me to Sialkot — Pakistan’s hub of sport goods production — to meet Zahid Javed, director and chief executive of CA Sports, and learn about his company’s journey and the business of cricket bats production.
When Charaghdin Abdul Rasheed laid the foundation of a sport goods manufacturing company in 1958 to produce wooden rackets for lawn tennis, little did he know that in the years to come it will be his cricket bats that will go on to revolutionise the sport.
Charaghdin Abdul Rasheed also didn’t know that his children would use his initials to make CA Sports, a company, whose cricket bats, would soon become the first choice for many international greats.
Javed’s father focused on the production of wooden rackets for lawn tennis, before stepping into the production of cricket bats in 1965. Just four years into the business, he had to shut down the production of cricket bats as the sport was yet to gain popularity in the country.
“There was a huge demand for tennis and our goods were exported worldwide,” says Javed.
It so happened that the ’70s saw a sudden boom in the popularity of cricket and decline in the tennis following. Japan’s entry into the tennis business in 1975 badly damaged CA’s market standing as it introduced graphite-made rackets instead of wood.
CA saw its demand going down quickly and made a right call by abandoning production of tennis rackets and switching back to produce cricket bats once again.
Gray-Nicolls’ and the ‘curve-shaped’ bats
CA may have been back again producing cricket bats and other related equipment, but market acceptance remained ordinary as most of the Pakistani players, back in the day, preferred to play with English bats.
It sprung up as a challenge to set a new trend and convince Pakistani players to try something locally produced.
Javed terms India’s tour to Pakistan in 1978-79 as a turnaround for cricket following in the country which subsequently opened up new ventures for business in the sector. He also recalls it as an opportunity for his company to have stepped in at the right time to meet the surge in demand for cricket equipment.
CA already had a bit of experience in producing bats, after all. But this time they stepped in with new technique.
“Straight bats were trending all over the world and to introduce something different, we shifted our focus towards curve-shaped bats. We thought they were more suitable for Pakistani style of cricket,” says Javed.
His assumption of Pakistan style of cricket is surely derived from a fact that there have always been more concrete wickets and fewer turfs.
“Utility of slim bats was fine for turfs but couldn’t really match the competition on concrete. The curve-shaped bats had a thick blade and executed powerful strokes. Scoring runs at a faster pace was made possible with them,” he says, stressing on an aggressive style of cricket Pakistani players are mostly known for.
It was a wait for almost a decade and a half that CA got to sign its first international cricketer. Saleem Malik, in 1984, became the first Pakistani player to try the newly-introduced technique in the international arena.
Following on Malik’s footsteps, CA’s signature curve-shaped bats were later seen in the hands of Ramiz Raja, Wasim Akram, Saleem Yousuf, Iqbal Qasim and many others the very next year.
“The curve-shaped bats we see in today’s cricket were first produced by CA in 1979,” Javed boasts proudly. “International companies introduced similar bats way after us in 1996.”
Javed says that seeing the Pakistani batsmen playing with the curve-shaped bats, India copied the technique and produced similar bats for their cricketers.
“That’s how they got popular across the world and changed the way cricket was being previously played.”
The year 1997 turned out to be a major year for CA as the company signed one of the finest batsmen ever known in cricket: Brian Lara of the West Indies, who was previously been looked after by Gray-Nicolls — an English company, arguably the biggest in the world.
“The owner of Gray-Nicolls came to me and the first thing he asked was: ‘How do you give curve to the bat?’ I took him through the production process at our factory and since then, Gray-Nicolls, too, started producing curve-shaped bats,” says Javed.
“I believe in sharing what I have learned. I wouldn’t have gained much from hiding it anyway. It was, in fact, an honour for me that the owner of such a big company was at my doorstep asking for a favour,” he adds.
No cricket, no business
For Javed there is no denying that India is the world’s biggest sports manufacturer at the moment, but he says, “After them, it is Pakistan. There was a time when England used to lead this industry, but not anymore.”
Since the tragic attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009, Javed estimates that the industry suffered losses of up to 50 per cent of its total business.
“Had it not been for the international demand of our products, we would have closed down our factory by now,” he says.
Though the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) desperate attempts in bringing back cricket in its grounds has led to some breath of fresh air with Zimbabwe coming in to play two Twenty20 and three One-Day International matches in May this year, ending the country’s six-year isolation, there is still a long way to go to create a safe environment for the sport.
Javed, too, thinks that although the Zimbabwe tour was a positive sign but the way it was organised didn’t help the cause of cricket’s revival in its true essence.
“Cricket will only be truly revived in Pakistan when there will be better security and international players could easily travel in every city of the country. Cricket cannot be revived by bringing in a team and making it play under a curfew,” he says.
Pakistan’s poor security situation has also benefited India’s sport industry at large. Commenting on India’s economic standing, Javed said it is a far cry to even compare Pakistan’s sport sector to that of its eastern neighbours.
“India has a different security situation; also they have a huge population. They are a big market and we simply can’t match them in numbers,” he says.
“But yes, we can definitely match them in terms of quality and we are doing it already across the globe. We also export our products to the places they do.
“We sell the brand and represent Pakistan. India, however, doesn’t focus on its own brand much but rather makes products for other companies. And brand-wise, Pakistani bats are preferred over theirs,” he adds.
Fallout with PCB
In cricket, much like other sports, kit sponsorships are a good source of revenue generation.
A team’s success is no longer only judged by win-loss ratios. Commercial value plays an equally important role in cementing its place as a ‘champion team’.
The concept, however, is quite alien to Pakistan and the country’s cricket board seems least bothered about building a brand.
A story in this magazine (‘Selling them short: PCB’s kit deals’ Aug 2, 2015) earlier drew comparisons to India’s kit deal before the World Cup and how it was worth in excess of $60 million while Pakistan’s valued nothing. It was argued that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) successfully “leveraged its brand” and the PCB “severely undersold what is possibly the country’s easiest-to-sell product”.
Javed reveals the chain of events that transpired between CA and PCB which led to the breakdown of their longstanding partnership. As a result, a lesser known company ‘Hunt’ won the contract with PCB — reportedly “free of charge”.
“I told PCB many times that if they have some major international brands like Nike or Adidas then it is their right to raise the demand. The PCB had opened their bid three times in the past several years and there wasn’t any bidder other than CA,” says Javed.
“We were successful in finalising a contract, which lasted for two years, for the 2011 World Cup and 2012 World T20 Championship and then the board announced fresh bids.
“As I was the only one present there, they decided to go into negotiations with me. My bid was low, their expectations were high. With two months into negotiation, they ended up giving rights to Hunt, free of charge. Had they finalised a similar deal with CA, we would have given them Rs10 million as sponsorship cost, along with clothing,” he adds.
Blaming PCB’s “bias” as the deal breaker, Javed says that despite being in partnership with the board for four years, CA always got the rough end of the stick.
“Relationship between CA and the PCB had never been pleasant. Why is it so? That I don’t know.
“PCB can be very biased. The 2009 World T20 Championship that Pakistan won; Slazenger was its sponsor for clothing. The license of Slazenger was with us. We were providing them with all the clothing. CA is their need, but their demand is not up to the mark.”
But what really pushed the deal to end like this?
According to CA, the terms and conditions it set for the board were blatantly violated.
“We had a clause that the PCB would stop illegal sales of Pakistan’s World Cup outfit. There are only two events where demand of replica shirts is high: World T20 Championship — where the time period is very little, 10 to 15 days at max — and ICC World Cup, where the time period of the demand is relatively higher,” says Javed.
According to the company, PCB’s failure to stop illegal sales resulted in at least 30,000 jerseys remaining unsold.
“Despite our regularly informing them about it, they didn’t do anything. We couldn’t even sell 25 per cent of our estimated figure. We were to pay them on the basis of our contract with them. When the PCB didn’t comply with the contract, we emailed them a notice. Instead of giving a response to us they started sending us legal notices.
“The PCB then called off the deal. There were, however, many issues that remained unattended which the PCB was legally bound to address. Overstepping all of those issues, the PCB called off the deal and went to court. Now we are fighting them in court,” he adds.
Javed blames PCB’s “incompetent marketing department” for the whole fiasco.
Talking to Dawn, PCB’s General Manager Agha Akbar contradicted the version of events put forward by the CA Sports chief executive.
“CA called off the deal just before the Bangladesh tour which was scheduled to take place right after the World Cup. Of course, we had to look for other options as tours can’t be stopped because of apparel deals. We negotiated and decided to go with Hunt,” he explained.
Akbar did not give details of the board’s negotiations with Hunt, but said that the PCB is sincere in resolving the issue with CA. “The board has requested the court to appoint an arbitrator between the two parties to reach a consensual resolution of the dispute,” he added.
Video by Ibtisam Zahid Khanzada
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015