Shot to the top
Over the years, shooting has gathered a proud momentum in India's sporting legacy – from 15-year-old Shardul Vihan to 37-year-old Sanjeev Rajput – our country has many reasons to celebrate this game of grit and accuracy
There's no denying that cricket has long been at the pinnacle of India's sporting glory – but, if there's one sport which has witnessed unprecedented acclaim in recent times, garnering commendation globally and within the nation, it is shooting.
Being an important Olympic sport for India, the country's shooting surge gained pace when ace shooter Abhinav Bindra struck gold with a stellar performance in the 10m Air Rifle event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Before this, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had bagged silver in the Double Trap event of the 2004 Athens Olympics – which also proved to be India's only medal at the Summer Games, making it another momentous feat in the history of Indian shooting.
Remarkably, with Indian shooters exhibiting their worth time and again, over the past few years, the sport has witnessed a rich medal haul coming its way at the world stage. The latest being the recently concluded 18th edition of the Asian Games.
The 2018 shooting season though has been marked by various inconsistencies across different stages. After tasting success in this year's first World Cup held in Guadalajara, Mexico – where India sat atop the medal tally securing nine podium finishes overall including four golds – soon, there was the sensational outing at the Commonwealth Games. India ranked 3rd in the Gold Coast competition with 26 gold medals across all events, of which seven belonged to shooting alone, rounding off to 66 in the total tally. Then, in the midst of a busy season was the World Cup in South Korea, where Shahzar Rizvi was the lone Indian to bag a medal for shooting. Rizvi brought home a silver after he missed out on a spot at Gold Coast.
Things went from bad to worse when Indian marksmen returned home empty-handed from the remaining two World Cups held in Fort Benning, USA and Munich, Germany. The shooters failed to replicate their previous awe-inspiring displays, as Asian powerhouse China topped the medals chart with three golds. Indian shooters made it to three out of 10 finals through Apurvi Chandela, Anjum Moudgil and Om Prakash Mitherval at Munich's historic Olympic Shooting Range. Even though the first two came agonizingly close, a medal escaped India in this World Cup stage.
The dawn of the 2018 Asian Games called for a timely display of mettle by India's shooters to aggressively overcome all odds. Interestingly, not many had won individual gold medals at the Asiad since the commencement of the tournament, starting with Randhir Singh back in 1978. Here, shooting once again sprung to capture the nation's imagination. New stars were born and they shone in all brightness alwongside the old-timers, who too were rejuvenated to bring back their vintage ruthlessness in the quest for the golden metal. Following in the footsteps of senior shooters like Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Jaspal Rana and others, the recent crop of young shooters put up a splendid show at the acclaimed Asian Games, taking the world stage by a memorable storm.
Saurabh Chaudhary and Abhishek Verma: 16-year-old Chaudhary first made headlines in the 10m Air Pistol finals of the junior world cup held in Suhl, Germany, where he shot a total of 243.7 points. In Palembang, a focused and steadfast Saurabh topped the qualifying round and later won gold with a games record of 240.7 in the same event – and, that too, against Olympic legend and multiple world champion Jin Jong-oh of South Korea. Taking up shooting as a hobby and making his debut at this Asian Games, Abhishek Verma, aged 29, had to settle for a bronze in the same event with a score of 219.3.
Shardul Vihan: Another youngster, aged only 15, Vihan became the youngest Indian marksman to win a medal at the Asiad 2018. Showcasing nerves of steel, he topped the qualification with a score of 141/150 and registered 73/80 hits in the final to claim silver at the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang, Indonesia.
Deepak Kumar and Lakshay Sheoran: The duo won silver medals in the men's 10m Air Rifle and men's Trap respectively at the 2018 Asian Games. Deepak's score, in the end, was 247.7. 19-year-old Lakshay shot 43 out of 50 to finish second on the podium.
Sanjeev Rajput: The 37-year-old, perhaps among the oldest members of the shooting contingent at the Games, clinched a silver medal after he shot 452.7 before letting slip an early lead in the men's 50m Rifle 3 Positions event at the 18th Asian Games. As a result, China's Hui Zicheng notched up the gold medal with a score of 453.3.
For Indian women shooters competing at the world stage, the story hasn't been very different as there is no dearth of talent. At the 2018 Asiad though, because female shooters hadn't opened their gold account at the continental games in contrast to their male counterparts who had already registered seven golds, their triumphs enabled them to get the better of a seemingly perennial obstruction on their way to success.
Manu Bhaker: The girl from Haryana had become a teen sensation after becoming the youngest Indian to win an ISSF World Cup gold in 10m Air Pistol. Her successful Gold Coast Commonwealth games outing, where she defeated veteran Heena Sidhu to gold, only embellished her glittering shooting career. Moreover, she also shattered the junior world record with a score of 242.5 in the 10m Air Pistol event at the Junior WC this year. However, in this year's Asian Games she wasn't at her best. Though she topped the qualifying round with a brilliant score of 593/600 to set the qualification round record, she was ultimately ousted at the 6th position as she shot 16/30 in the final.
Rahi Sarnobat: The 27-year-old attained a rare feat by clinching gold in the women's 25m Pistol event at the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang, Indonesia. Rahi kept her cool throughout the battle against Thailand's Naphaswan Yangpaiboon after both were tied at a score of 34/50 – which is a Games record – taking the finals to a shoot-off to decide the gold. She went down in history books by becoming India's first woman to win an Asiad Gold.
Heena Sidhu: The year 2014 witnessed Heena Sidhu becoming the first Indian woman shooter to stand as world no 1 in 10m Air Pistol with a final score of 203.8. In addition to this, in 2013, Sidhu became the first Indian pistol shooter to win a gold medal in an ISSF World Cup final, when she won the 10m Air Pistol event. Also a dental surgeon, she won the bronze medal in 10m Air Pistol event at this 2018 Asian Games.
Defying tremendous odds in a system bereft of scientific training and lacking sophisticated sporting infrastructure, Indian shooters have excelled at the global stage fuelling many more nascent ambitions. However, the Asian Games isn't the first stage where a young and motivated bunch of young guns have turned heads around with their stellar performances. This particular rise of young shooters shouldn't come off as a surprise – the likes of Suma Shirur, Kuheli Gangulee among others, have all braved odds to prevail on the world stage. One mustn't forget Anjali Bhagwat, the first Indian woman shooter to sit atop international rankings. She also won gold at the WC finals in 2003 at Milan with a laudable performance that got her virtually a perfect score when she reached 399 points out of 400.
The burst of young Indian shooters into the international arena, especially after the Asiad medal haul, indicates one aspect for sure – the sport's legacy in India, particularly among the masses, will bloom with grandeur, relishing the hopes of amplifying this stupendous run in the wake of many more bright years awaiting at the sport's doorstep.