By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu
Bengaluru, January 7: During a recent panel discussion, Michael Atherton, former England cricket captain and one of the game’s most respected commentators and analysts, was asked to list his favourite cricket books. One of those was War Minus The Shooting, by the acclaimed American author, Mike Marqusee.
The author’s nationality, and the title, would give no hints whatsoever that the book is about cricket, let alone sport. Yet, 25 years since its publication, it is still revered by experts and fans as one of the greatest pieces of literature on the game. The book chronicles Marqusee’s travel across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka during the 1996 cricket World Cup, with a socio-political context. The actual cricket itself comfortably sits at the backdrop, as the author takes a deep dive into the restless, chaotic political and economic climate in south Asia in the mid-1990s. Marqusee’s prescient views on the cricketing economy, backed by solid research, makes this book a timeless classic.
Yet, efforts to get hold of the copy, physically or digitally, went in vain after the original publishers stopped publication. Rare second-hand copies were going for a fortune. Fans made beelines to bookstores in various cities hoping for that stroke of luck.
Mahesh Sethuraman was one of them. The Singapore-based banker and cricket blogger, was casually glancing at a colleague’s bookshelf before heading to work one morning in 2013, when he finally spotted the book. Out of curiosity, he researched that only one library in Singapore stocked it, that too reserved exclusively for academics.
The book was the subject of discussion at the “81 All Out” cricket podcast in March 2021, to commemorate 25 years since the 1996 World Cup. The show, hosted by author, cricket writer and editor Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, featured Mahesh, and sports writers Sharda Ugra and Andrew Fidel Fernando as special guests.
“One of the readers wrote saying, much as we loved listening to the podcast, we cannot sell both our kidneys to get this book,” says Siddhartha over phone from his home in Seattle. A search on Amazon India’s catalogue had just one used copy for a whopping ₹11,000.
That sparked a chain of events that led to the republication of the book by two cricket fans with no background in the world of publishing.
The journey wasn’t without roadblocks, though. Marqusee died of cancer in January 2015. Siddhartha and Mahesh got in touch with Marqusee’s partner Liz Davies to request the publishers if they would be interested in a reprint. Penguin, however, showed no interest in pursuing it.
The possibility of bringing rare cricket books back to life had been a subject of discussion at the podcast in the past, and here was an opportunity to act on it. Siddhartha requested permission from Liz to republish the book by themselves, and she requested Penguin to revert the rights to her.
With legal guidance from lawyer friends in Chennai familiar with Intellectual Property Rights to get a better understanding of publishing and distribution dynamics, Mahesh and Siddhartha quickly set up their new publishing entity to formally acquire the rights from Liz. With that, “81 All Out Publishing” was born.
Registering the firm in Singapore was a practical one. “We did some basic research on the advantages and disadvantages of setting up in the US or Singapore,” says Mahesh. “It was working out to be more cost effective to set up in Singapore, which also has the advantage of being one of the easiest places in the world to do business.”
There was one small problem, though. Penguin had misplaced the original manuscript. Cricket writer Kartikeya Date then got hold of a PDF copy of the book through his contacts in academia, and the duo set about reformatting it to meet the design requirements of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
Efforts to reproduce the original cover picture from Getty Images of Sri Lanka’s Aravinda de Silva didn’t succeed, and Jaipur photographer Kamal Julka was contacted for a replacement image. Meanwhile, acclaimed Australian cricket writer and historian Gideon Haigh offered to write the book’s foreword and Atherton, who in spite of his England team being lambasted by Marqusee in the book, willingly contributed a generous blurb.
Within five months of acquiring the rights, the Kindle version was launched in November. Following a tie-up with a printing press in Chennai, printed paperback copies were being sold at Bengaluru’s Atta Galatta from December. Printed copies will soon be available on Amazon India and Flipkart. Currently, physical and digital copies are available on Amazon in the US. An audiobook version is planned. The pandemic, however, has slowed down their plans of reaching out to bookstores in the rest of south Asia.
Having got off to a rousing start, they plan to re-release more such cricket classics on popular demand, though they would prefer not to reveal any plans once official. “This experience was actually quite seamless. But we would face challenges in terms of the author or family being reluctant or non-committal or being hard to trace, especially if the book was published over 50 years ago. Who really has the ownership? It’s a fun, investigative challenge in itself,” says Siddhartha.