A flood of fresh blood

Sanjeev Rajput and Gagan Narang....bagging Olympic quota berths.-SANDEEP SAXENA

New guns have been booming with an intensity that has not been seen before in Indian shooting. Forget the national records being given a thorough overhaul in many events, the Olympic records set in the Beijing Games in 2008 have been conveniently overtaken, with some of the shooters getting close to smelling distance of world records, providing a healthy image, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

Indian shooting has tasted fresh blood. There is young talent thirsting for success, pouncing on opportunities on the world stage with vigour and vitality, making the sport in the country throb with life.

For the connoisseurs, it has indeed been a heartening experience to follow the fortunes of shooting in the country in recent weeks, despite the madness of IPL cricket's fourth edition threatening to silence every other noise of triumph.

New guns have been booming with an intensity that has not been seen before in Indian shooting. Forget the national records being given a thorough overhaul in many events, the Olympic records set in the Beijing Games in 2008 have been conveniently overtaken, with some of the shooters getting close to smelling distance of world records, providing a healthy image.

After the intense competition in the Commonwealth Games at home and the Asian Games in China, the shooters had to grapple with the National championship and the National Games, before going through repeated rounds of mandatory trials that tested their nervous energy and the zeal to pursue the sport.

It was understandable that the Indian guns were not able to assert themselves in the World Cups initially this season, in pursuit of the Olympic quota places. After winning just two quota places from the first five World Cups — two in rifle/pistol and three in shotgun — Indian shooting took a decisive step forward by snatching three Olympic quota places in the last World Cup in Fort Benning, Atlanta.

With double world record holder Gagan Narang and Hariom Singh having secured two quota places in the World Championship in Germany last year, Indian shooting had already announced its readiness to wage a war for the Olympic medals in London next year, with seven quota places in all. The good thing is the promise of winning more quota places and improving on the record of nine shooters sent to the Beijing Games.

With two more World Cups apart from the Asian Championship ahead, there is no doubt that the promise would be fulfilled. For, there are a whole lot of champions who have not yet asserted themselves in clinching an Olympic quota berth, with Olympic and world champion Abhinav Bindra being the foremost. He is getting closer and could soon clinch the deal.

Olympic silver medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore is yet to win one, and so are others like world champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu, and the evergreen Anjali Bhagwat who just needed one appearance in a World Cup to get back into the main team, despite being away from the sport for nearly three years.

Incidentally, of the nine who made it to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, only two — Narang and Rajput — have won the quota places again in the current cycle.

Among the young crop, the 20-year-old Rahi Sarnobat took everyone's breath away, when she shot a final score of 207.7 in the women's 25-metre sport pistol to rocket to the bronze medal, from the eighth place, in the World Cup in Fort Benning. All her 20 shots in the final were 10s, a feat not achieved even by the Olympic champion Yi Siling of China on way to the Final Olympic record, when she shot a stupendous 208.4 in the Beijing Games.

Anisa Sayeed, who had pipped Rahi to the individual gold in the Commonwealth Games, shot 587, a score that bettered Yi Siling's Olympic gold winning qualification score of 585, but slipped with a bad last series of five shots in the final. Indeed Rahi's final total of 789.7 was a new national record, and so was Anisa's 587 in qualification.

Anisa Sayyed and Rahi Sarhobat...women with flair.-R.V.MOORTHY

Vijay Kumar was stupendous as he matched the best in the business in a nerve-wracking rapid fire pistol final, before he lost the last tie-shoot for the gold 1-4 to the Olympic bronze medallist Christian Reitz of Germany.

The 25-year-old army Subedar, a triple gold medallist in the Commonwealth Games and one who had won bronze medals in the air pistol and centre fire pistol events in the Asian Games in Guangzhou, overtook qualification leader Ding Feng (589) of China following two rounds of shoot-off in which he prevailed 5-3 after a 4-4 score, on being tied at 24-24. Unfortunately, such heroics proved costly as he ran out of quality ammunition after catching up with the leader 29-29 with a 5-4 score in the last series for the gold. It was commendable the way Vijay handled the new knock-out format in rapid fire, in which all six finalists start from scratch as their qualification scores do not count to decide the medals.

It may be noted that Vijay has a national record of 586. Equally, it may be noted that the Olympic gold went at 580 last time, and the world championship gold was seized at 585. Of course, the standards have been taken to a new level, but Vijay's performance was an assurance that Vijay was on the same track with the best.

With pistol coach Pavel Smirnov, hired by the army to tune its shooters, on his side, Vijay would prepare in right earnest to capitalise on the biggest opportunity of his career. Of course, there have been assurances from national coach, Prof. Sunny Thomas, that the world class display by Vijay had convinced the renowned coach Alexander Melentiev, whose world record of 581 in free pistol has withstood the test of time from 1980 in the Moscow Olympics, to take up the coaching responsibility of the Indian pistol shooters. Melentiev had refused a short-term contract with the Indian team before the Commonwealth Games.

The arrival of Melentiev could boost the chances of Annu Raj Singh who shot a phenomenal 389 in qualification before capturing the silver in women's air pistol in the World Cup in Fort Benning. The national record equalling effort, was all the more impressive as the Air India officer had recovered from an erratic start in which her second shot was an ‘8' leading to a card of 94. She shot 97, 99 and 99 thereafter. Better preparation to shoot in the finals would considerably boost her chances on the world stage.

Annu Raj's total of 486.6 was just 0.2 point short of the world championship gold winning effort of 486.8 by Zorana Arunovic of Serbia who had shot 385 in the qualification then. Of course, the fight had been a lot more intense in the Olympics in Beijing when Natalia Padernia of Russia shot an Olympic record of 391 in qualification, only to find Guo Wenjun of China who was one point behind in qualification, taking the gold with a 492.3 score, a Final Olympic record.

Sanjeev Rajput was brilliant when he rewrote the national record in the free rifle 3-position event with a qualification score of 1176, on way to shooting the gold in the World Cup in Changwon, Korea. He also re-wrote his own national final record with a score of 1278.2 and this helped him beat Nemanja Mirosavljev of Serbia by 6.7 points for the gold in Korea. It was a superlative performance of 102.2 in the final that had helped Rajput emerge on top of the heap with such a big margin. Despite a mere one-point lead over Ole Kristian Bryhn of Norway, Rajput led from start to finish in the 10-shot final.

The Olympic gold in Beijing was won at 1272.5, following a qualification score of 1173, by Chinese Qu Jian. The world championship gold was won by Peter Sidi last year with a score of 1275.6 following a qualification mark of 1178. The 30-year-old Navy marksman, Sanjeev, had won the silver medal in air rifle last year in Sydney. He is still smarting about being left out of the Commonwealth Games squad, and that is not good news for the shooting world.

Perhaps the stringent selection procedure keeps the Indian shooters on tenterhooks all the time. But it also forces them to come up with a knock-out punch in the international arena to prove their class.

What can one say about double trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi, who has taken the sport to a completely different level, after effortlessly taking the reins from Rajyavardhan Rathore! He has been one Indian shooter who has been taming the world repeatedly, with a string of world records. Ironically, he shot a world record qualification score of 147 to prove a point even when he was forced to shoot in the MQS section in a World Cup in Mexico last year, a year in which he had to undergo the ignominy of being a ‘zero' shooter, filling up the gap, during the Commonwealth Shooting Championship.

A man who shot two world records on way to winning the prestigious World Cup Finals in Belgrade in 2008, but did not qualify for the Olympics in Beijing, Ronjan has inched closer to the new final world record of 196, with a score of 195 in the Lonato World Cup in Italy last year. The lone gold medallist in shooting for India in the last Asian Games in Guangzhou, the 31-year-old Ronjan threatened to win the gold, before settling for the silver in the shotgun World Cup in Beijing, when he shot 183 in tough conditions to bag the Olympic quota place.

Vijay Kumar...going great guns.-R.V.MOORTHY

The Olympic gold went at 190, a final Olympic record by Walton Eller of the US, in Beijing. Ronjan has shot 194 twice, 195 and 192 once each on the world stage, to assert that he was capable of rising to the challenge even if it required matching or bettering the world record.

Double world record holder Gagan Narang, with a world championship bronze against his name, has shot the perfect 600 thrice in international competition including the recent Commonwealth Games, apart from once in the prone event in Plzen. He holds the final world record of 703.5 in air rifle. A versatile shooter, he can always be banked upon to deliver the best results, particularly after he has learnt rich lessons from the last two Olympic Games.

By setting up the ‘Gun for Glory' academy in Pune, and hiring the renowned Anatolii Piddubnyi, a pistol coach who has trained many world and Olympic champions, apart from procuring the services of Anatoliy Fedorchenko who doubles up as a coach and a gunsmith, Narang has made a solid platform for Indian shooting to launch itself stronger and higher.

Hariom Singh of the Army has been the only shooter who has won an Olympic quota place in the tough grind of the world championship by finishing sixth in Munich with a 598 in the free rifle prone event, but has struggled to make the Indian team in recent months. He did shoot in the Commonwealth Games and the Asia Games, but has not measured up to the rigours of matching the rest for berths in the national team for the World Cups. Maybe, Joydeep Karmakar, who had shot 599 on way to winning the World Cup silver in Sydney last year, could be eyeing the Olympic quota, won by Hariom. It may be noted that the ISSF rules specify that an Olympic quota is won for the country, and not for oneself.

Apart from established names like Abhinav Bindra, Anjali Bhagwat, Suma Shirur, Manavjit Sandhu, Mansher Singh, Rajyavardhan Rathore and Samaresh Jung who are attempting to pin the Olympic quota places there are some other shooters like Heena Sidhu, Harveen Srao, Omkar Singh, Amanpreet Singh, Anisa Sayeed, Ayonika Paul, Tejaswini Sawant, Seema Tomar, Shagun Chowdhary, Satyendra Singh and Imran Hassan Khan who may also rise to the challenge.