Indian shooting has progressed at the speed of a bullet train! It is no exaggeration. For long, the trap silver in the World Championship in Cairo in 1962, by the erstwhile Maharaja of Bikaner, Dr Karni Singh, stayed as the benchmark for the sport.
From being a favourite pastime of kings and queens, the sport moved hands to the ones in the armed forces, especially the army, before reaching the grasp of civilians, mainly through the National Cadet Corps (NCC).
With liberalisation, and the relaxation of stringent arms license rules, virtually anyone can practise the sport now across the country with suitable guidance.
The achievements in the last two decades have been phenomenal. and this has given hope to kids going to school that even they can have access to all the fame and money, pretty early, if they train diligently.
In the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, a small bunch of four shooters managed to pluck five medals for India, two gold and three silver. Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary, Mehuli Ghosh and Shahu Tushar Mane have become household names thanks to the phenomenal exposure in the media.
It can safely be said that no sport in the country has the depth, quality, numbers and the advantage of age as in shooting.
As far back as in 2002, I remember being asked by Tony de Launay, who was writing on shooting in The Times , London, during the Commonwealth Games, “Why are the Indian shooters so young?!”
It was something the British could not fathom, as the young Indians beat the older stars with nonchalance, with no sign of nerves. In shooting, age is no barrier.
There is a system which has fast-tracked the youngsters to world standards. The scenario is mind-blowing at the moment, as 15-year-old Shardul Vihan won the Asian Games silver in double trap, while the 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary beat the giants of the sport to win the Asian Games gold in air pistol.
India had a silver medal from Dr Karni Singh in the Asian Games, before Raja Randhir Singh won the first gold, in trap, at the 1978 edition in Bangkok. Since then, only Jaspal Rana had followed with a bunch of medals, including four gold, one at Hiroshima 1994 and three at Doha 2006, before Ronjan Sodhi and Jitu Rai won one each.
Apart from the World Championships and the Olympics, the Asian Games had invariably been a peak to scale for Indian sport, especially shooting, because of the high standard of opposition from the Chinese and the Koreans, apart from a few more in recent times.
So, to have two gold medals, through Rahi Sarnobat in women’s sports pistol and Saurabh Chaudhary in men’s air pistol in Palembang, at the Asian Games 2018, was indeed a true reflection of Indian shooting stepping up to the next level.
Without doubt, Indian shooters are absolutely world class, as they showed by winning 27 medals, including the ones by the juniors, at the recent World Championships in Changwon, Korea.
In a season packed with the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, apart from the regular World Cups and the Junior World Cups, this was some achievement.
For the common man, the biggest breakthrough for Indian shooting came in 2004, when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, a major in the army then and practising the sport for only about six years, won an Olympic silver in Athens.
Jaspal Rana and Anjali Bhagwat had been shooting big time medals and beating the world prior to that, but the Olympic medal provided a new boost.
Two years later when Abhinav Bindra and Manavjit Singh Sandhu won World Championships gold medals in Zagreb, Croatia, it was another sign that the sport was making rapid strides, fuelled by firm faith that overcame the overwhelming negativity that was ailing Indian sports.
It was thus no surprise when Bindra won the gold in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, beating the Chinese in their own backyard, when they threw a party for the world and tamed everyone with their sporting might.
The first individual Olympic gold for India was in shooting and it is still searching for the second which it may find in Tokyo, perhaps through another shooter.
While Gagan Narang was a world-class shooter before he won the Olympic bronze in London in air rifle, Vijay Kumar was an unknown entity before he won the Olympic silver in London.
There was also a change of rules, especially in rapid fire pistol, in which the qualification scores did not add up to the final scores, and the finalists started on zero! For long, the qualification grind had left the Indian shooters behind till a Bindra or a Rathore broke the shackles. Vijay Kumar, deemed a dark horse for about two years before the London Games, capitalised on the opportunity to deliver that unforgettable silver, when the world champion in the event, Alexei Klimov of Russia, could not win a medal despite shooting an Olympic and World record 592 out of 600 in qualification.
The biggest jolt for Indian shooting was at the Rio Olympics when it drew a blank after having nursed expectations for multiple medals. Bindra himself, in his fifth Olympics, missed a medal by 0.1 point as he lost a tie-shoot and placed fourth. Jitu Rai, Gurpreet Singh and Mairaj Ahmad Khan were all in a position to win medals before they failed to progress.
Like a tiger crouching before it pounces on its prey, this was perhaps a low that would trigger Indian shooting to a new high in Tokyo.
The admirable thing with Indian shooting is that it has capitalised on every opportunity, be it the SAF Games, Commonwealth Championship, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Asian Championships, World Cups, World Championships and the Olympics.
As the former rifle coach of the country Laszlo Szucsak would often say, diamonds can be polished only with diamond dust. He was one of the pioneers of giving shape to the dreams of Indian shooters, along with the pistol coach Tibor Gonczol in the early 1990s.
The Union sports ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) along with the national federation had done the ground work in hiring experts and listening to their advice to a great extent.
A whole bunch of top shooters have also taken up coaching in recent times and this has seen a qualitative jump in the performance of the shooters. There is no limit to the resources being spent on shooting by the government for training and exposure, while a number of initiatives, including the one by Gagan Narang, called Gun for Glory, have been able to provide adequate guidance and direction to talented shooters who are hungry for success and have no fear of failure.
The National Rifle of Association of India (NRAI) is headed by Raninder Singh, who won the national championship trap silver even ahead of established Olympic-level shooters like Manavjit Singh Sandhu and the rest. Being a politician and the son of Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, the dynamic Raninder has been able to take Indian shooting to a different class.
He has been able to conduct the World Cups, the Olympic qualifying events and the Asian events, apart from the World Cup Finals in all events, to project a healthy image of the sport.
India, which has won only two Olympic quota berths for Tokyo in the World Championships through Anjum Moudgil and Apurvi Chandela in women’s air rifle, will be hosting the first World Cup of next season, which will offer many Olympic quota places.
If they handle the pressure, the Indian shooters will have the advantage of being at home while fighting for the precious quota places for the Tokyo Olympics.
The consistently brilliant performances by the shooters have caught the imagination of the media to a great extent. This is, however, a worry for some coaches, who fear that their wards may not be able to handle the media glare well, because of their impressionable age.
Unlike badminton, there is very little television coverage for the outstanding performances of Indian shooting, and that is the only factor holding the sport back. The fact that thousands of young shooters compete in the national championships, especially in air pistol and air rifle, reveals a strong base.
To encourage the aspirants and to break the monopoly of the sport by a bunch of high-quality shooters, the NRAI has such a democratic selection policy that anybody has a chance to make the national team with consistent performances, even merely in selection trials. At times it may be counterproductive, but overall the shooting selection policy has served its purpose of bringing the best out of anyone who dons the national colours.
The secret of success is the high-quality domestic competitions, which prepare the shooters wonderfully well for the international grind. For sure, Indian shooting is a classic example of quality emerging from quantity. The access to the sport is very good and the lack of equipment, like a gun, does not prevent anyone from pursuing the sport. You just “hire and fire!’’
Chess may be thrilled to welcome a 12-year-old as a Grandmaster, but the NRAI recently adopted a policy that prevents anyone below 12 years from competing in the National championships.
Of course, it will not stop the young champions from winning world class medals in their teens! Indian shooting has come of age in the last decade.
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