Sport, Interrupted: Batmakers BDM on dodgy pitch but bank on 95-year history to see them through

"Anyone who has a role in Indian cricket will have some connection to our company," says Aditya Mahajan of BDM. File photo shows Virat Kohli playing, with a BDM bat, for the Indian Board President's XI v Australia in 2008. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

When Aditya Mahajan closed his cricket equipment manufacturing factory in the city of Meerut in mid-March this year, it was not a decision taken lightly. "In our 95-year history, we'd shut down just once before. That was in 1947, when my grandfather and his family had to abandon their factory and flee to India because of the partition of undivided India."

It's taken Covid-19 for BD Mahajan and Sons Pvt limited - the makers of the famous BDM cricket bats - to down shutters again. "We haven't faced anything like this before," says Mahajan, 41, the third generation of his family in the business. "When the virus arrived in India, no one had an idea how bad things would go and that we would have a countrywide lockdown. We resumed production 10 days ago."

While production has restarted, he's still grappling with a host of challenges. "I don't think anyone has an idea how to deal with this," he says.

For inspiration, Mahajan looks to his company's heritage. "We are the country's oldest cricket brand, my grandfather BD Mahajan started this company in Sialkot [Pakistan] in 1925. Anyone who has a role in Indian cricket will have some connection to our company. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni have all used BDM products," he says.

But history is a long time ago in the age of the virus. The Indian market for equipment, which Mahajan reckons comprises 90 per cent of the global cricket market, is non-existent at the moment. "Matches haven't started yet. No coaching centers or academies have re-opened. Everything is closed," he says. " The orders we had were postponed or cancelled. We are facing a lot of heat at the moment. A lot of people are jobless so purchasing power goes down as well. When that happens the first thing you will cut back on is sports. At least in India, that is the lowest priority."

"In a normal season, most serious players will go through between four and ten bats," says former international cricketer Pravin Amre, who used BDM bats through his career - including while making a century on his Test debut against South Africa. "Right now no one is making those kinds of purchases."

With no sales in India, it's the overseas markets - previously minor - that are keeping the company ticking. "Right now, Australia and New Zealand are largely fine for business. They are still placing orders. That's about 10 percent of our sales taken care of. I've been shipping to these countries for the last 20 days. They've started asking for more products as well. Britain should be free of [covid-19] faster than us, that's a significant market too. We aren't sure just how long it will take for the USA to recover. That's become 5-7 percent of our sales over the last few years," Mahajan says.

While he's fighting to keep his company operating, Mahajan says he's got plenty of calls of support . "We had Sachin [Tendulkar], [Virender] Sehwag and [Rahul] Dravid among others who were all associated with us. I still get calls and messages from them asking about how things are and telling me to stay safe in this time," says Mahajan.

This isn't surprising, says Amre. "A lot of cricketers have an attachment to bat makers that go beyond purely professional ties. We got a lot of support from them at the start of our careers. I made my first international century with a bat that I got from them. You always want to stay in touch."

However, there's one compromise Mahajan is not willing to make even in this crisis: Selling bats for recreational cricket, even to high-profile cricketers. "BDM has a reputation to maintain. We produce equipment for everyone who wants to be a hardcore professional cricketer. It's not for the recreational cricketer. You don't need a professional bat to play inside your room. A professional bat costs Rs 20,000; you can't waste that for playing inside your room with your kids. I let them know that. I'll say, focus on your training and fitness. So when the time is right you can get your equipment. We have an old relationship so they don't get offended."

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Sport, interrupted: How the coronavirus lockdown is affecting the Indian sport ecosystem

While sales have largely dried up, expenses haven't reduced much. "We make our bats from English willow, which we have to book a year in advance because of its scarcity and the demand for it. You have to buy whatever you book, otherwise the suppliers will make sure you won't get the supply the next time you need," Mahajan says.

Inventories of the high-quality wood have piled up in India's ports, he says. "We are loaded with shipments from the UK. We are just tired from trying organize the money to have them released. The government wants the GST (goods and services tax) up front to have them released from the ports. There's duty at the port. Three months of lockdown means we have three months of shipments stranded at the port. We are getting shipments but we aren't making anything, it's not even been delivered," he says.

"Just to get it into the port, we have to pay the 18 percent duty, the 10 percent GST and the service charges of up to 12 percent. When you are importing in 7 figures, then just the customs duty is around Rs 35 lakhs," he says.

While there has been government support to small and medium-scale manufacturers, what has hurt Mahajan, ironically, is the fact that he always maintained a cash-rich company. "The government has offered lower rates of interests on bank loans but this didn't help us," says Mahajan. "We have always been a cash-rich company so we never took loans. We thought this was a good idea but because there is so much stuff coming in, we have run out of cash."

Mahajan has been able to clear some bills, which means that shipments are now making their way to his factory. Production there is slow. "We have made masks mandatory. We are taking temperature checks every day. And we make them sit two meters apart. Our normal work time used to be 9 to 5 and we'd work till 11 pm if there was heavy demand. Now we shut down by 4 pm. We are working at about 30 per cent of our capacity."

Despite the slowdown, Mahajan says no workers have been laid off. "It's not possible for everyone to work at the same time so we have shifts on alternate days. So everyone's able to work at least two or three times a week and earn some money. It's not a situation a lot of workers are happy with, though; we have to face a lot of their anger."

Retrenchment isn't an option. "Our industry is labour-driven and specialist labour is very hard to find. It takes one and a half to two years to graduate to making a bat. It might be faster to train someone who already knows how to work wood and has a natural talent, but the average worker needs to be trained for a long time. When we hire these people, you can't just lay them off," Mahajan says.

BDM are betting on the market eventually recovering, and will retain the workforce till then. "We know the market is non-existent right now. All we can do is plan for the future. We think that in six to eight months we will be back to normal and then it will be a struggle to find workers, especially if you lay them off."

Mahajan is confident he'll manage to come out on top. "When my grandfather came to India they were already a well-established name making hockey sticks and cricket bats. But they came here with next to nothing. He took a loan of four hundred rupees and restarted his business from zero. We are facing tough times once again but we will manage to survive," he says.