The expectations are pretty high

THE world of shooting has not changed much, except that the world has started recognising the class of the Indian shooters in recent times.

PROF. SUNNY THOMAS

All geared up for the big event -- Suma Shirur (left), Deepali Deshpande and Anjali Vedpathak-Bhagwat -- have brushed shoulders with the very best and have also beaten them a few times. -- Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

THE world of shooting has not changed much, except that the world has started recognising the class of the Indian shooters in recent times. China, Russia, United States, Germany, Korea and Italy still remain the superpowers in this sport. We have not only been able to brush shoulders with the very best but have also beaten them a few times. Indian shooters have been winning medals at every level in the last few years, and it will be an icing on the cake if we can return with medals from Athens.

Unlike the last Olympics in Sydney, when trap shooter Anwer Sultan alone had won a quota place while rifle shooters Anjali Vedpathak-Bhagwat and Abhinav Bindra had to depend on the `hardship quota', we have eight shooters winning the quota places this time in stringent competition, in World Cups, World Championship and the Asian Championship. For the record, the 390 quota places in 17 events have been shared by shooters from 106 countries.

Quite obviously, the expectations will be high, but the tension is a bit less. The pressure is shared and everyone is relaxed. It is a big advantage to win the quota, as you have the time to prepare well. There is no last minute wait for the wild cards. So, instead of just aiming to be there at the Olympics, we can do something positive. The idea is not just to represent the country any more on the biggest sporting stage of the world. The attempt will be to shoot good scores and make a mark.

It is interesting to study our eight shooters.

Quite consistent

Anjali has been quite consistent and was ranked No.1 in the world for some time. She has the confidence of having made the final in the Sydney Olympics. She has beaten the world champion and the world record holders. Others look up to her and rate her as a tough opponent. She has shot 399 out of 400 a few times, and is capable of shooting a 400 also. I am not worried that she has not been in great form this season. She will peak at the big event. There will be about 40 shooters or so in air rifle and you really can't judge someone as better as everyone is equally good.

In the 3-position event Anjali won a World Cup medal this season, which should be a confidence-booster. She has shot 580 plus a few times. The first thing would be to make the final. After that, if she has the lead, it will be a huge advantage. Olympics is Olympics, and the record is still only 397 in women's air rifle!

Suma Shirur has the world record of 400 out of 400 in air rifle. In fact, five have that record, and Lioubov Galkina of Russia has done it four times. Right from the Commonwealth Games, Suma has been shooting close to Anjali. She has been training with Laszlo Szucsak, our former coach who is now training the Japanese team. She is a good competitor and capable of making the final.

Deepali Deshpande won the 3-position quota, but is good in air rifle also. Actually, she was the first person in India to cross the 390 mark. She did that quite quickly after I had mentioned in a report that she would cross 390. In one of the World Cups she missed a 3-position quota despite a 586 out of 600. In the Asian Championship, she got the quota in 3P beating the only person who was in contention, and gave a wonderful final in air rifle. She is a confident person and has already declared that she would make the final.

Abhinav Bindra still holds the world junior record. He has been training well with the US Olympic team, and has been beating their best. They all hold him in high esteem, and know that he can beat anyone on his day. The only point against him is that he has not been able to shoot the big scores in the big league, that he has otherwise been shooting in relatively lower level competitions. It is a matter of time before he settles into his rhythm in the big competitions. He works very hard and is quite experienced despite being young.

Gagan Narang is the find of the season. After winning the gold in air rifle in the Afro-Asian Games, he has been able to make two finals in the World Cups this season including the one in Athens. He has had training stints in Hungary. Physically big built, but mentally still a child. The advantage for him is that there will not be any pressure. I have told him not to try and prove anything to anyone, but try to shoot his score.

Most consistent

Mansher Singh (left), the most experienced of the lot, with the young trap shooter Manavjit Singh Sandhu. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

Major Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has been in the sport only for the last five or six years, but is one of the most consistent. He got the Olympic quota a bit late. All the other top double trap shooters used to wonder how Rathore had not got the Olympic quota till he won it in the World Championship. He has already won three gold medals this season including one in a World Cup. Quite undoubtedly, he is one of the outstanding double trap shooters in the world.

Mansher Singh is the most experienced of the current lot. He is mentally very strong and has the killer instinct. It will be his second Olympics after Atlanta. Has been shooting very good scores recently. More importantly, he has shot well in difficult conditions, the biggest challenge in shotgun events. Even if he doesn't start good, he makes up in later rounds.

Manavjit Singh Sandhu is a young trap shooter with natural talent. He is still shooting with the SAI gun. Has a very good attitude and a mature outlook towards the sport. Has been a national champion a few times. Has won the World Cup bronze and along with Mansher and Anwer has won many medals including gold in team competitions over the last few years. He is calm and quite, not at all worried about anything. Can be the surprise package.

If any of these shooters can make the final, it will be anybody's game thereafter. It all depends on that day. I can only say that, on their day, they can beat anyone. If anything, they need a bit of luck.

The good thing is that all of them have been training abroad, focussing purely on building their form. They know that it is not only their countrymen but the whole world would be looking up to see how they fare in the Olympics, especially after the euphoria in various international competitions.

Honestly, I don't want to predict anything. I am not taking anything away from the ability of the Indian shooters to excel in the Olympics. They themselves know that they are acknowledged and accepted. Our shooters have been in finals in most of the events in the World Cups and that is a great thing.

There is going to be pressure for sure. How to shoot with the tension? The key is to use the tension to one's advantage. You are lost if you try to control it.

There may be many things that we may lack as compared to many other countries. Yet, the overall support has been excellent. The government, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) have all been extending the best possible support to the shooters. Few shooters in the world get as much international exposure as we get. Of course, we have not been able to get the foreign coaches, basically because their fee is very high.

Considering the manner in which our shooters have been performing on the world stage, there will be many who would love to coach the Indian shooters after the Athens Games.We all want to get good results and medals from the Olympics. If your wishes and prayers are with us, there is no reason why we should not win.