Beyond the realm of the Commonwealth

Indian shooting has turned a new page. It does not need a platform like the Commonwealth Games any more to make the big leap into the bigger events like the Asian Games, World Championship and the Olympics.

Excellence personified: Ace shooter Heena Sidu has found a worthy rival in teen sensation Manu Bhaker (right).   -  AFP

The anger and anguish of the president of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), Raninder Singh, was palpable, when he said that he would request the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Union Sports Ministry to consider boycotting the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022, if shooting is not reinstated.

Shooting had once again topped India’s medals tally with a haul of 16, including seven gold, in Gold Coast, Australia.

Even though it was one medal less than the collection in Glasgow in 2014, the gold haul from shooting had gone up from four to seven, which is encouraging.

Of course, such arm-twisting methods, as feebly attempted by the NRAI president, are not taken lightly by the International federations as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as world sport would be in tatters with such tantrums.

Shooting has delivered big time in the last few Commonwealth Games starting from Manchester in 2002. India has won 129 medals in shooting in the last six editions of the Commonwealth Games, that includes 62 gold medals.

The gold haul reduced as the pairs events were removed. Some more events were removed from the current edition, before shooting as a sport itself has been given the boot by the organisers of the Birmingham Games.

Global domination

At a time when Indian shooting is firing on all cylinders with the raw talent and proven champions asserting themselves on the global stage, as was evident from the World Cup and the Junior World Cup in Mexico and Australia respectively, earlier this season, there is a valid question that pops up. Has not Indian shooting grown out of the Commonwealth Games?

Absolutely yes. Indian shooting has turned a new page. It does not need a platform like the Commonwealth Games any more to make the big leap into the bigger events like the Asian Games, World Championship and the Olympics.

Youngest Shooting Star: Anish Bhanwala, 15, celebrates on the podium after winning the men's 25m rapid fire pistol shooting final.   -  AFP

India is capitalising on the World Cups every year to sharpen its talent to deliver on stages that matter. India finished on top in the medals in the first World Cup of the season in Guadalajara, Mexico.

India topped the World Cup in Mexico with four gold, a silver and four bronze medals, which was three medals and one more gold than the second-placed US. China was third with five medals including two gold. India accounted for 20 per cent of the 45 medals that were shared by 15 countries.

In the Junior World Cup in Sydney, days prior to the Commonwealth Games, India finished second behind China, with 22 medals that included nine gold. India was on par with China with nine gold and eight bronze, but the world sports super power prevailed on the silver count, 8-5.

Class act

Manu Bhaker, the 16-year-old protege of junior national coach, Jaspal Rana, himself a pistol genius in his time, had shown her class in both the World Cups, senior and junior, with a bunch of gold medals including the mixed competition, before she blew away the field in the Commonwealth Games.

Heena Sidhu, the former world record holder and World Cup Final gold medallist, who competed in the last two Olympics in London and Rio, has found a worthy rival in the young girl, who is scoring big to intimidate everyone.

Manu had shown her class earlier in the National selection trials and the national championships, but to strike it so perfectly on the world stage was something super special.

Cash rewards

Does she need the Commonwealth Games? Of course, she did need that gold medal from Gold Coast as it was worth Rs.1.5 crore — the cash award from the Haryana government.

In a sporting eco system, in which the World Cup and junior World Cup gold medals do not fetch a single rupee, the Commonwealth Games has been viewed as a gold mine since 2002 when the then Sports Minister Uma Bharati opened the treasury to shower wealth on the medallists to the tune of Rs.20 lakh for each gold medal.

National pride: Tejaswini Sawant (right) and Anjum Moudgil gave India double the joy by winning the gold and silver respectively in the women's 50m Rifle 3P final.   -  AP

Thereafter, the State governments followed suit to show their big heart towards sports. When Rahi Sarnobat won the World Cup gold in sports pistol some time back, she was rewarded Rs.one crore in Maharashtra. But that was a rare case of a World Cup medal fetching such a reward.

Indian sports generally starts with the Commonwealth Games, moves to the Asian Games and ends with the Olympics. Even the World Championships do not attract that much attention. It is not surprising in a cricket crazy nation.

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As Jitu Rai, who has been a phenomenon in pistol shooting over the last few years and has won everything except an Olympic medal, beautifully pointed out that there was no such thing as a small or big competition.

The shooters compete against themselves and their own best scores. The national championships and the numerous selection trials are as intense as any international competition, for Indian shooting has many dozens of brilliant shooters who can strike the gold on their day, on any stage.

Commonwealth queens

What the Commonwealth Games showed Indian shooting was that the women were more on target than the men, and were better at exercising control over their nerves and muscles.

The Indian women won four gold, four silver and a bronze, as compared to three gold and four silver by the male shooters.

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Having shot the new format, which calls for equal number of shots for men and women, it was literally child’s play for Manu Bhaker to score 388 out of 400 in women’s air pistol and eventually win the gold with a 6.9 point margin over compatriot Heena Sidhu. After struggling with the first five shots in the final, Heena fought brilliantly to secure the silver medal.

The sting of missing the gold was so sharp that Heena won the sports pistol gold, against all expectations. Champions like Heena need their ego to be shaken a bit to perform to their best.

Golden laughter: Shreyasi Singh celebrates after winning in the women's double trap finals at the Commonwealth Games.   -  Getty Images

Tejaswini Sawant was happy to recall the good old days in Melbourne, Australia, when she won two gold medals in 2006. She was thrilled to bits to win a gold and silver this time in the rifle 3-position and prone events.

Mehuli Ghosh stunned Martina Lindsay Veloso of Singapore with a perfect last shot of 10.9 in women’s air rifle, but did not realise that she had only tied the scores. A premature celebration and putting the rifle to safety robbed her of the gold, as she lost the shoot-off 9.9 to 10.3 to the Singaporean.

Apurvi Chandela, the defending champion, was on track for gold, but two 9s in the climax reduced her to the bronze status.

Anjum Moudgil, who stunned everyone with a score of 1170 out of 1200 in women’s rifle 3-position event in the Mexico World Cup, came up with the 3P silver in Gold Coast.

Shreyasi Singh graduated from silver to gold in women’s double trap and Saniya Sheikh really touched her best to qualify in the second place in women’s skeet and eventually place fourth.

Handsome tally

Jitu Rai, who had to miss air pistol in the last Commonwealth Games despite being world No.1 in the event, won the gold this time in air pistol, while Om Prakash Mitharval topped qualification with an impressive score of 584, and ended up with two bronze medals.

The 15-year-old Anish Bhanwala, another prodigy trained by Jaspal Rana, stunned the rapid fire field with the gold.

Sanjeev Rajput shot record scores of 1180 and 454.5 for the gold in men’s rifle 3-position event which augurs well for the Olympian whose Olympic quota place was snatched away the last time.

Ravi Kumar and Ankur Mittal deserved to shoot the gold in air rifle and double trap respectively, after their dominant performances on the world stage, but the two managed to grasp the bronze medal.

The Commonwealth Games did throw up a lot of names, most of which were familiar, but Indian shooting will be sharpening itself for the second half of the season that has the Asian Games and the World Championship.

With China and Korea making it hard in the Asian Games, just before the World Championship in Korea, it is safe to say that the fireworks of Indian shooting have just begun.

To come back to the prime question, Indian shooting does not need the once-in-four-years push any more, from the Commonwealth Games, to leap on to the world stage. For, it is already perched on top of the world.