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Playing it by the book


Dev Sukumar spotted the story a decade ago. He deliberated for a while before piecing together the authorised biography of the legendary badminton player - Prakash Padukone. Dev, who was 26 when he started the project and 28 when Touch Play hit book stores in 2006, self-financed the operation. He travelled the length and breadth of the country from Kolkata to Kanyakumari besides select destinations on the international calendar - meeting and interviewing more than 200 friends and contemporaries of Padukone, including greats like Rudy Hartono, Morten Frost and Han Jian. Dev then took it a step further, selfpublishing the carefully compiled account.
"On the badminton circuit you hear anecdotes about Prakash, but there was nothing to read up or refer to, " Dev said, explaining his reason for writing Touch Play, "He did extraordinary things. I wanted to dig up the facts, tell the story. Most of all, I wanted to know the man, the champion player. "
While Dev's stirring effort may not have made a debut that carried commercial weight, it triggered a trend that has seen a range of books on Indian athletes flood the market. Sports books in vernacular scripts, especially Bengali, have long been in the market, hard covers written in English took time to roll out. Well before the 21st Century, veteran Bengali sports journalist Moti Nandi, for example, had written several novels centered around sports people. In a market where the clock ticks with the ring of the cash register, the wheels began to turn four or five years ago, making room for a genre in which readership and moolah was on the rise. Athletes wanted to tell their stories and writers were willing to putting it together for a price. And now publishers are lining-up for the honour of listing titles under their umbrella.
While cricket has had an assembly line with books on the modern pillars of the game - Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar - there has been variety too, Clayton Murzello co-authoured Caught & Told, a collection of humorous cricketing anecdotes. Gulu Ezekiel, the marathon writer, has churned out titles much like an old-school poet pulled out rhyming stanzas. Prolific author Suresh Menon recently put out Bishen Singh Bedi's book - Bishen: Portrait Of A Cricketer. Former India opener Aakash Chopra has written two insider accounts of the Indian first-class game: Beyond The Blues - A Cricket Season Like No Other, the story of Delhi's Ranji Trophy win in 2007-08 and Out Of The Blue - Rajasthan's Road To The Ranji Trophy.
About the time Dev started writing Touch Play in 2004, India's TT star of the early 1980s, V Chandrasekhar, whose career was tragically cut short by a case of medical negligence, also started work on his book My Fight Back from Death's Door. Pullela Gopichand's story has been told by former Indian Thomas Cupper Sanjay Sharma. The journey of the English language sports books in India which received fresh life with Dev's self-published effort came full circle recently with Olympic gold-medallist Abhinav Bindra's A Shot At History. Written by Rohit Brijnath, the book met with applause and appreciation.
Sharda Ugra, who co-authored John Wright's Indian Summers, one of the most open and refreshing accounts of life inside the Indian cricket team, said, "Everything has come together today in a nice structured manner. " She added, "There has been great growth in the publishing industry in India in the last 20 years, more recently sports has found a place in it. In the last 15-20 years there has been noticeable movement in Indian sports. We've seen several pioneers come through - Jeev Milkha Singh, Narain Karthikeyan, Koneru Humpy, Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal. It was also a time when the Indian economy opened up, making travel easy for sports journalists and a publishing industry looking for more. "
There is a range of sports books - memoirs, compilations, autobiographies, biographies, controversy-based accounts and events - that are being readied. Vedam Jaishankar, who wrote Rahul Dravid's biography, is working on a tennis book. There's talk about a Viswanathan Anand biography and whispers of a Tendulkar book, besides works on India's pathbreaking tennis pros Sania Mirza and the inspirational Leander Paes. Badminton's glam gal, Jwala Gutta, and the don of Indian football, Bhaichung Bhutia, are also likely subjects.
VK Karthika, publisher and chief editor HarperCollins India, attributed the rising graph to two factors - "timing' and "the public's interest in the big picture", which goes beyond newspaper reportage, especially when a controversial character tells his story. When asked to put a figure on what counted as "good" for the selling of a sports book in India, she said "10, 000". For the literature of playing fields it is still a fledgling market in India, so, while Indian Summers sold 10, 000 copies at home and Bindra's book, published in October last, is reportedly inching towards the 8, 000 mark, in the United States Tim Tebow's Through My Eyes sold 185, 000 copies and ESPN: The Uncensored History numbered 115, 000 in hardcover in 2011.
"Most of our sports books got good attention. It sold well. I thought the success of those books had a lot to do with timeliness, " Karthika said. That along with the fact that the number of readers of sports books in India is growing, making for a receptive market which is not so much a trend, but a movement with a widening base. Karthika said that while they were casual bookshop browsers, who crossed over to the sports section these days and picked up an interesting title whenever they laid eyes on one, there was also that section of readers (sports fans) who wanted to know more than what newspapers or the television gave them. "That's why, " she said, "controversies work so well. "
Brijnath, who works with the Strait Times in Singapore, said one of the deciding factors in his accepting to do the Bindra book was the timeliness of the venture. After a couple of more Olympic Games, where he may or may not have replicated his Beijing success, people may not be so interested in him, Brijnath said. "Today, he is literally a man in a billion, " he said, "He is a hardworking, obsessive man with an intriguing history. I think his story deserved to be told. "
Brijnath, formerly from Kolkata, rued the fact that there isn't sufficient recorded sports history in India. "We may not have had a wealth of athletes like some other nations but we have had our share - cueists, hockey players and cricketers, " he said.
"In world sport we have a wider presence today if not a greater one, " Brijnath said, "In the past, it was hockey, cricket and football when it reigned. Now we are spreading our tentacles, posing a wider presence. We have a girl in women's tennis, a badminton star, drivers, golfers and shooters. Whoever would've thought this was possible 20 years ago? Are people interested in reading about them beyond what the back page of a newspaper offers? I am damn sure they are. We also have the writers to tell their stories. "
As long as there are athletes and action, there is going to be a market. The same goes for hard covers.

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