In a corner of Northamptonshire, a cricket revolution of sorts is flourishing. Cricket Deal Direct, run by Ian Anderson, is the vehicle behind Indian brand, SM, which is quietly getting a thumbs-up from more and more UK cricketers.
Household Indian cricketing names seemingly deal in initials. From SS to BDM and it’s perhaps no surprise that this is a nod to the people that built these institutions from the ground up.
In fact, the Mahajan dynasty stretches back to 1925 when Banarsi Das Maharajan began Mahajan Sports in Sialkot. In 1947, he moved the family to where it is today in Meerut and re-named the business BDM; which developed into a bat brand known throughout the world.
Both of his sons became involved in the cricket empire and when Sunil (known as Pintu) passed away in 2006, the dilemma was what to do with the existing BDM business.
SM came into being through sons, Uday and Sanyam with help from their mother, Usha Maharajan and family friend Sachin Tendulkar when the brand was initially launched onto the Indian market in 2008.
There are workers with SM who have over forty years of bat making experience with plenty of hands-on, local know-how; in fact, the only machinery in the SM factory is a pressing machine.
It’s a long way (nearly five thousand miles) between SM’s operation in Meerut, in the Northern Indian province of Uttar Pradesh to the Northamptonshire County Cricket Club shop.
But since Ian became the exclusive UK distributor for SM, as well as running the Club shop for the Division One county, two perhaps unlikely planets have collided.
The first step to world domination (my words, not his) was to get the bats out there in people’s hands. Cue a raft of sponsorships from Cricket Deal Direct. Not big-money, headline-grabbers but savvy backing of talented cricketers like Middlesex’s Harry Podmore who have since gone on to full county honours.
In the case of another sponsored player, Middlesex’s Ravi Patel, he’s playing for England Lions against Sri Lanka A at Taunton at the time of writing. It’s this exposure which fuels interest both within the international changing room and to the world at large, especially if he hits a few runs.
An Elite Young Players Development Scheme has seen county cricketers at youth level given SM kit to allow them the tools to hopefully progress; meanwhile county cricketers were sitting up and taking notice.
When Scotland captain Preston Mommsen led Scotland into Group A for the 2015 World Cup with his second century of the qualifying tournament, it was done with an SM bat.
The challenge continues to be standing out in a cluttered marketplace. Aside from the global heavyweights and established niche names, in these entrepreneurial times, new bat companies spring up all the time.
There are plenty scattered across Yorkshire and at a lower level, all manner of transactions which take place with kit sales from the back of a car.
How to persuade people to consider an SM bat? So many go with what they know but equally, many will try a bat that materialises in the changing room on Saturdays.
Names of bats like the SM King of Kings will still be unheard of to many playing cricket in the UK but over time, there’s no reason this can’t change. The top-of-the-range blade costs £365, with the best English willow SM can lay their hands on but all budgets seem to be catered for.
The SM bats are unmistakably Indian with brash branding (SM can clearly be seen from Jupiter) and bold graphics. This will appeal to some and turn away others and so it ever was with the imprecise science of cricket bat design.
What SM perhaps has in its favour is flexibility of range and price. Not everyone can afford – or even benefit from – a bat costing hundreds of pounds. But bats like the SM Player’s Pride (£175) have proved popular in the Northants County Cricket Club shop this summer.
For those with less money to spend, bats like the SM Vigour come in at £115; a steal for a cricket bat. It’s been crafted from grade three willow (perfectly good for many league cricketers, it ought to be noted) and as there is no universal grading across every cricket bat, grading is a guide rather than gospel.
There’s no substitute for picking up a cricket bat; feeling what it’s like in your hand and getting to grips with the weight distribution before, if possible, having a hit.
Don’t get too hung up on grading of willow if your budget won’t stretch that far. It ought to be acknowledged that some brands will charge £150 plus for grade three willow but because it’s a brand you’re comfortable with, maybe that’s not an issue.
We’re all different. Both in our preferences as players but also when we make our buying decisions and what we look for.
So, to the psychology of cricket bats. As a league cricketer for over twenty years, I’ve been in the clubhouse when an Indian bat has surfaced and prompted curious looks.
English players know their Gray-Nicolls and Gunn and Moore but the bats from Asia were complete unknowns and massive. It is ironic that more and more bats nowadays are copying the larger edges and profile that we associate with Indian bats because, ultimately, you the consumer want them.
There is sometimes a disparaging, snobbiness to Indian cricket bats in England. The blithe assumption being that they’re usually inferior to whatever we could produce.
Again, a bit of context here – a vast proportion of the world’s cricket bats are shipped off to India to be made and shipped back so clearly there’s some significant expertise being misrepresented.
It ought to be said that the battle for some Indian brands to make a splash in the UK cricket bat market will come up against poor, super-cheap imitations that come over from India independently.
However, buying from a trusted retailer not only ensures you get exactly the bat you want but also the customer service and guarantee if you’re not satisfied. Try collaring that guy who rocked up one weekend to flog you a dodgy bat that broke after two net sessions; he has already disappeared into the ether.
Whilst we’re looking at the dynamic between buying English, Australian or say Indian bats, the issue of Kashmir willow looms large like the elephant in the room.
For a long, long time, Kashmir willow in England has been castigated and sneered at. With good reason in some cases with some appalling cricket bats out there that wouldn’t last two minutes out in the middle.
It’s not enough to say Kashmir willow bats are all rubbish because that’s patently not true. It’s irrefutable that English willow is better quality, a better investment, springier and more likely to reward the batsman with that tell-tale ‘ping’ of the ball off the bat.
But a bat costing £30 as Cricket Deal Direct sell for a SM Thrust might be what some can afford and it’ll depend on what it’s used for; like a knock around in a playground with some mates, might be just fine.
I’ve grown up being told endlessly that English willow trumps Kashmir willow ever time and there’s nothing I’ve seen to prove otherwise but again, lines have now become blurred. All the major brands sell Kashmir bats too because they’re much, much cheaper and obviously tap into the Asian market.
In a couple of ways, I’m being a raging hypocrite as I’ve only once bought an Indian cricket bat. It was a trip to Chennai and I returned home with a bag of four or five bats that were as cheap as chips and though they all said they were English willow, it was pretty clear they weren’t.
I let fellow players at my club at the time have a look and they all sold (I was that dodgy salesman referenced earlier) and there were no complaints. You get what you pay for no question but as bat prices continue to get out of hand, Kashmir bats have a place in the overall picture, whether we like it or not.
Meanwhile, credibility for SM and Cricket Deal Direct has also come with aligning alongside established leagues and organisations such as their sponsorship of the England Tamil Cricket Association and Club Cricket Conference.
Ian Anderson has signed up a number of brand ambassadors, both professional and amateur, to spread the word. Salma Bi is a talented player on Worcestershire’s books and Sophia Dunkley is making her name at Middlesex, to name but two.
They have also invested in Bradley Taylor of Hampshire, who is currently with the England Under 19 squad whose second Test against South Africa is at Northampton, followed by ODIs in Birmingham, NOttingham ,Leicester and Derby.
At Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, where Cricket Deal Direct sponsor three players, SM continues to make an impression. Allrounder Steven Crook smashed his maiden first-class century (131) against Middlesex at the start of July with his SM Swagger bat.
These performances are sure to send ripples out and encourage intrigue in SM who have in the distant past had none other than Sachin Tendulkar endorse them (he wore an SM helmet to protect that priceless head of his).
As part of the growth of Cricket Deal Direct, branching out into European cricketing circles has been a strategy that continues apace with a partnership of Cricket Espana and burgeoning links to Cricket Scotland.
Clearly the cricketing powers that be are impressed as Cricket Deal Direct became a preferred ICC Europe supplier this year (and SM are approved ICC manufacturer); a seismic step towards ensuring SM becomes well known far beyond the Udyog Puram Industrial Area in Meerut where they are based.
The endless possibilities that come with the internet beckon next. As England and India scrap it out on and off the field in this Test series and the subsequent one-dayers, Ian is planning for 2015 and embracing the global audience that shops with behemoth, Amazon.
Their uniqueness lies in the fact that as a company importing directly from India, there are no middlemen which means additional savings for all you batsmen out there.
An exciting and challenging time ahead then for Cricket Deal Direct and best of luck to the Peterborough-based operation as Indian bats tussle with their England counterparts.
* Have a look round http://www.cricketdealdirect.co.uk/and Cricket Deal Direct are looking for ‘agents/salesmen’ to help spread the word of the fast-growing SM family, contact them directly if you’re interested.