The pucca road leading up to Meerut’s proposed hawai patti, or air strip, is flanked for many a mile by fields of sugarcane, intermittent tin sheds and grazing goats. On the patch of red mud that will some day give way to this city’s first airport, seven boys, ostensibly shepherds, are in the throes of a cricket match. Two batsmen, four fielders, one bowler, stones for stumps. Even as astray cattle blink out the fierce afternoon and the sharp swirls of dust that accompany it, the bowler shakes back his hair and begins his long run up.
The bouncy rubber ball shoots up and over the batsman’s driving arc and flies away behind the stumps, into the unmanned wilderness. The batsman knows he has to retrieve the ball. But before he does, he shadow practises his drive once again (just as the folks on TV do after a false stroke), drops his bat and sets off on his chase. The fallen bat doesn’t even have a grip for its handle; yet it proudly wears a branded sticker on its face—a prominent white tick printed within a dark blue background.
That Nike sticker, regardless of the fact that this one is clearly a knock-off, would’ve once been the bane for the company located a stone’s throw away from the stalled match (literally on the other side of the tar road), the office-cum-factory of the largest bat manufacturer in the world, Sanspareils Greenlands. Or, simply SG to its customers.
Beyond swathes of lush lawns and within his exposed brick workspace sits Paras Anand, the third line of Anands to dedicate himself to his grandfather’s family business, and a man who had the unenviable task of inheriting SG just as it was becoming trendy among cricket fans in India to junk local produce for international brands.
“The ironic thing is that there is a great chance that the willow under most designer stickers was made by us, right here in this factory. Yet, it was eating away at our brand visibility, hence our brand appeal and our market value. How incredible is that?” says Paras, shrugging. He then laughs when he says: “By the mid 2000s, it had reached a point where kids would go to a sports shop and demand for a bat ‘made’ by a tyre manufacturer. Not just in metropolitan cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, but also here, in places like Meerut.”
By tyre manufacturer, Paras primarily means MRF, three bold, red alphabets that occupied prime real estate on the bats of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Steve Waugh in the past, pasted now on the blade of their worthy successor, Virat Kohli. And where are Kohli’s bats custom-crafted to their final coat of varnish? At this very factory, of course. He could also be talking about Ceat, MRF’s rival, which now sponsors Ajinkya Rahane’s SG-made willow.
“Very little has changed in the way bats are made today and the way they were made 80-odd years back when my grandfather first got into this business,” says Paras. “But everything has changed in the way bats are sold, branded and consumed.”
Cricket equipment manufacturers find themselves in the unique position of suffering parasite advertising the way no other manufacturers in any other global sport do. In tennis, for example, there is never any ambiguity over which racquet Roger Federer employs. Nike and Rolex pay Federer millions of dollars to endorse their brands. But they stick to his forehead and his wrist, respectively, never encroaching upon the hallowed territory that is his equipment. That’s exclusively reserved for the giant, cursive ‘W’ of Wilson, Federer’s career-long racquet producer.
“By the time the IPL showed the world the size of India’s consumer market, and all the big apparel brands—and I won’t take their names but you know who they are—started pouring in to grab their share, we had basically been reduced to glorified vendors,” says Paras. For those not in the know, these brands were Nike, Puma, Adidas and New Balance to list a few, pretty much every major player in the industry. “And that was when I decided to take some tough calls. The choice was clear. Either continue being a vendor and die a slow death. Or protect our territory, promote our own brand and make it visible once again.”
The choice wasn’t as obvious as it seems today. One wrong move and he stood to jeopardise his lucrative business as a vendor as well. “See, you must understand that these international brands have very deep pockets. For every Rs 10 lakh we spend on creating brand awareness, they can easily spend Rs 10 crore. Did we want to push them and see how far they could go? Or did we simply want to be satisfied being their vendors? It was a difficult, delicate situation to be in.” But armed with a degree in International Business from the UK, Paras understood better than anyone else who ran this family business before him that if he dreamed of swimming with the sharks, he’d better get used to the taste of blood.
IPL and the apparel brands it attracted reduced us to glorified vendors. I decided to take the big guns head on
“I decided that we were going to take these big boys head on,” he says. “I also understood as soon as that call was made that we had to rebrand SG. There was no point wasting our time and resources promoting the old SG. We had to make it more trendy, more youth driven, most international in its appeal. And we had to increase the range of our products. We had to go from being just cricket people to lifestyle people.”
‘The cricket people’ is a reference to the tagline that sat under the old SG logo. After a rigorous process of rebranding, the tagline became the catchier, snappier ‘Believe. Become.’ And so Paras did. He first believed and then became India’s largest manufacturer of cricket gear, and then the world’s. Today, SG doesn’t just sell bats and balls (“it will always remain our bread and butter”), but also bags and footwear. “We are aiming to sell 150,000 shoes this year, a 500 per cent increase from three years back,” he says. Last year, SG had an overall turnover across categories of close to Rs 150 crore. This year, it is well on target to cross the Rs 175-crore mark.
That’s not all. There’s more to his faith in ‘believe, become’. “By 2022, we feel we can realise our potential of becoming the first manufacturers in cricket to hit a Rs 1,000 crore valuation. And everyone, right from the worker who shines the leather for the balls to the employees in the sales and marketing team are programmed to get our company there,” says Paras with enthusiasm. “The change in the mindset of our company is best told when we see the foot soldiers in our team demand that the top management do our job properly so they can hit their numbers.”
Asked what his grandfather would say if he were to witness the recent rapid expansion of the 86-year old company, Paras laughs. “Arrey, he wasn’t driven by numbers at all. In fact, neither was my father nor his brothers. For them it was about relationships and not about sales. It was more personal back then.” Here he pauses, glances at the phone recording the conversation and says: “Back then, it was more personal. But to make it in this cutthroat world, we had to make it professional.”
Sixteen years before India’s independence, Kedarnath Anand (along with his brother Dwarkanath) decided to get into the bat making business in Sialkot, now in Pakistan. Displaced in 1947, Kedarnath started over in Meerut and quickly made a name for himself. But the real growth began in the 70s, once his sons Karanbir, Kailash and Trilok joined him, who in turn brought Sunil Gavaskar on board. Thanks to his heroics and also his initials, cricketer SG became synonymous with brand SG. For a while the public believed that the bat was made by Gavaskar himself, his ‘Sunny Tonny’ signature willow adding to the confusion.
The laidback manufacturers didn’t seem to mind, and neither did the shrewd cricketer.
To highlight just how personally the older Anands took their business, Paras narrates the following story: “Sometime in the mid- 80s, Gavaskar brought a little boy to SG and asked the brothers— my father Trilok and uncles Karanbir and Kailash—to support him with a kit. They did, all the way through his school and Ranji years; all the way until his international debut in Pakistan. When the kid reached Pakistan, he was signed up by Sialkot’s bat giants, CA, for the duration of the tour. Not longer than that. Still, my uncle was livid. He felt like he was backstabbed. So he vowed to never endorse this kid again, however great he may become.”
Here Paras smiles the smile of a man who knows the worth of a story’s climax. “Today,” he says slowly, slurping his green tea, “you know that boy as Sachin Tendulkar.”
Tendulkar ended up with BAS, hidden under stickers of Power, MRF and finally Adidas, of course. But others of Tendulkar’s ilk, namely Rahul Dravid, chose and swore by SG (he even flaunted an SG sticker through his career, bar a brief spell with Britannia). Thanks to the endorsement given by Gavaskar and Dravid (greats with textbook techniques), SG, by the turn of the century, had grown a rigid reputation as a brand for purists; the weapon of choice for the astute, technically-aligned cricketer. Now this was a great position to have as a brand. But the target audience, as Paras rightly points out, was limited.
“We wanted to tell our customers that we weren’t just for the perfectionists. But that was the image that stuck and we couldn’t really grow the way we wanted to because of that,” he says. “Because kids buying bats wanted to be all kinds of batsmen but we came with this reputation. We wanted to tell them that ‘this is just a bat and anything is possible’. But that message wasn’t passed on, again, till the IPL happened.”
When the IPL exploded into consumer consciousness in 2008, SG decided to quickly make the most of it. “It was evident that the IPL was going to change the game big time. And we didn’t want to miss out,” says Paras. “It gave birth to the new-age cricketer—aggressive men who hit aggressive shots, such as Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh. It became important to us to become a brand for these aggressive guys. We had to make that change. Our strategy was to bring on board ambassadors who represented this change in both the game and our company.”
So Raina was paid the big bucks to wield an SG bat, as was Virender Sehwag—a man who was aggressive even on serene Test fields. “We ended up creating a newer, younger, fresher identity. Our message was simple: ‘Whatever your style of cricket, we are there for you’,” he says. “That’s when we decided to not limit ourselves in any channel and so we jumped right into international markets. It has been a very organic extension to our new brand identity.”
Just last month, Evin Lewis, a sensational talent from Trinidad who plays for the West Indies, smashed an unbeaten 176 in an ODI against England at the Oval. Each time he raised his bat as he crossed a milestone, he made SG a little more popular than it ever was outside of India. And on the day of this interview, Dimuth Karunaratne, another SG ambassador, cracked the highest score by a Sri Lankan this year, 196, in a Test match against Pakistan in Dubai.
“When I watch that on TV, it’s like ‘I’m getting high’,” says Paras. “There is no better feeling than that, and everything, the hardships, even the sleepless nights, feel completely worth it. That’s the whole point of this, isn’t it?” In Lewis and Karunanatne’s hands, Paras has taken brand SG almost as far as it can go. Almost. For when the boys across the pucca road from his office are found with an SG-stickered bat in their care, he would have breached his farthest field.