The government may play on the front foot on this measure liberalising imports, with duties dropping to 5%, from 10%.
For India’s bat manufacturers, most of whom own big brands used around the cricketing world, the tariff cut, if it happens, will make a straight ball out the current googly they face – willow from Kashmir has been difficult to procure, and dependence on imported, especially English, willow has increased.
Bats used in professional cricket are usually made of English or Kashmiri willow. SG, SS, SF, MRF are among the major Indian cricket bat brands. They compete with Australia’s Kookaburra, Spartan and England’s Gun and Moore, Grey-Nicholls.
India imported $11.7 million of willow in FY20, more than half of which came from the UK. It exported $14.38 million of cricket bats and leg pads, with the UK and Australia being the major destinations. The relatively high bill of willow imports vis-à-vis export value of bats is the rationale for a duty cut. “We have proposed a reduction in components and raw materials of many sports goods, especially those which go into the exports of finished goods,” said Gautam Mehra, joint director, Sports Goods Export Promotion Council.
There’s also an employment dimension since cricket bat manufacturing is a labour-intensive activity. Willow wood to a finished and branded bat is an 8-9 step process, all requiring craftsmanship. Meerut in UP is one of the major manufacturing centres.
There’s another angle to this tariff cut, although nothing as dramatic as that Rishabh Pant boundary at Gabba. A duty cut that primarily benefits a British export into India may be a full toss equivalent of a trade gesture by India to Britain – with English willow exporters hitting it to the boundary, New Delhi hopes this will brighten the chances of a quickly negotiated India-UK trade pact.
Trade experts say India would like to conclude a trade deal with the UK before China does.
However, before an India-Britain trade pact, there will be an India-England Test series, beginning a few days after the February 1 budget. And what could be sweeter than Indian batsmen taking English bowlers to task with Indian bats made from imported English willow?