Indians on the mark

ABHINAV BINDRA celebrates after winning the air pistol gold in Zagreb.-WOLFGANG SCHREIBER

The Indian shooters displayed NERVES OF STEEL. They won six medals, including three golds, in Zagreb to record their best ever performance in the World Championships, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN.

Though China and Russia harvested a bagful of gold medals, the Indian shooters made quite an impact at the 49th World Championship in Zagreb, Croatia. From winning a solitary medal — a bronze through Rajkumari Dhodiya in the junior women's sport rifle prone event — in Lahti (Finland) in 2002, India showed a marked improvement in Zagreb, winning six medals, including three golds.

The Indian shooters displayed nerves of steel, as Abhinav Bindra (air rifle) and Manavjit Singh Sandhu (trap) crowned themselves the world champions. Then Navnath Farthate, the 20-year-old shooter from Kolhapur, provided a glimpse of what the Indian juniors were capable of by winning the air rifle gold with 596 points out of 600. The effort was only a point adrift of Abhinav's mark in the men's section. Incidentally, it was the second gold for India in the Junior World Championships after Jaspal Rana's standard pistol victory in Milan (Italy) in 1994.

The Indian trap team, a crack combination of Manavjit, Mansher Singh and Anwer Sultan, scared the wits out of the Russian team before settling for the silver medal by finishing two points behind at 360.

Harveen Srao, 20, claimed the bronze in junior women's air pistol with a score of 382 out of 400. At the last championship in 2002, Shweta Choudhary, with the same score, missed the bronze on the count-back in the same event. This time, Harveen had a nervous nine on her last shot when she could have won the silver with a 10. The Faridabad girl then won the bronze on the count-back! The Indian junior air pistol team of Amanpreet Singh, Bapu Vanjare and Zakir Khan won the bronze after finishing behind China and Russia. In fact, the team missed the silver by one point.

BEFORE THIS, India had won only four medals in the World Championships — silver by Karni Singh in trap (Cairo, Egypt, 1962), bronze by Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in double trap (Nicosia, Cyprus, 2003), gold by Jaspal Rana in junior standard pistol (Milan, 1994) and bronze by Rajkumari Dhodiya in junior women's sport rifle prone (Lahti, Finland, 2002). But six medals in a single edition of the World Championship was a dream effort indeed. It was also a proof of the combined prowess of the Indian shooters and underlined the fact that the team did not depend on a few names to strike it rich on the big stage.

The medals apart, the Indian team also booked two berths for the Olympics through Avneet Kaur Sidhu, who made the final in women's air rifle, and Abhinav Bindra.

National coach Prof. Sunny Thomas was a happy man. Having taken over as the chief coach in November 1993, Thomas has seen Indian shooting grow in strength at all levels over the years despite the numerous hurdles. "It is great to have three world champions, for we had not won a gold since Jaspal Rana did in 1994. It shows that the team is growing in strength and I am happy about that,'' he said.

Thomas also pointed out that the team had missed medals in a few events by narrow margins. He stressed that had there been good quality ammunition for practice in the final preparatory camp in Bangalore, the team could have done far better.

"We were holding on to good quality ammunition for the competition and using them like misers during the camp. Now that we have done well, there may be better support from the sponsors and the government," Thomas said.

The coach rued the missed quota places for the Olympics. He expected Tejaswini Sawant to win a place, and was particularly upset about Mansher Singh missing the berth on the count-back.

"Anyway, we already have six quota places for the Olympics. We have the World Cup and the Asian Championship next year. I expect at least another six to win the quota,'' said Thomas.

The women's air rifle team without the seasoned Anjali Bhagwat missed at least one medal. Down with ill-health, Anjali pulled out of her pet event and had to be replaced by Deepali Deshpande at the last moment.

Thomas was proud of the performance of the fast-emerging Indian rapid-fire pistol team. He was immensely pleased with Pemba Tamang who shot 579 out of 600 — the same as Olympic champion Ralf Schumann — when the best score was 583. Rapid-fire is perhaps the ultimate test in pistol shooting, as one has to shoot five targets in one flow within a span of four seconds in each of the series.

Overall, India's performance in pistol, rifle and shotgun has been impressive. This should augur well for India's campaign at the next Olympics in Beijing, China. It also gives a boost to India's chances of asserting its growing stature in the region, as the team prepares to take on shooters from China and Korea at the Asian Games in Doha in December.

At the last Asian Games in Busan, India won just two team silver medals in trap and women's air rifle. This time though the team should be gunning for at least half the medals at stake.

India has not won an individual gold in shooting in the Asian Games since Jaspal Rana claimed the centre fire pistol in Hiroshima in 1994. However, the Indian shooters have come a long way from that time. And their performance in Zagreb is a proof of that.