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Breathing fire at the top

It is almost inevitable. A champion is bound to be analysed, criticised, sometimes even vilified.
None | By Ajai Masand, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JUL 29, 2006 02:46 AM IST

It is almost inevitable. A champion is bound to be analysed, criticised, sometimes even vilified. It is part of the package, along of course, with the adoration. And every now and then, when there is that rare moment when more than one champion is on the horizon, there are bound to be comparisons. Unwanted perhaps but again, inevitable.

And when that comparison takes on the shape of a rivalry, one that is in your face and could potentially spell both exhilaration and disaster for the “combatants” and others involved, it makes for a fascinating spectacle. Such perhaps, will be the story of two young Indians, both champions in the same event and both remarkably different.

As 24-year-old 10-metre air rifle world champion Abhinav Bindra landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport after the epoch-making trip from Zagreb (Croatia) on this muggy Friday morning, it was hard not to draw comparisons with another, equally illustrious rifle marksman and World Cup gold-medallist Gagan Narang. Three months ago at the World Cup in Guangzhou, China, it was Narang who did India proud in the same event. Immediately, the mind’s eye was cast back to the day when the genial Hyderabadi had landed at the IGI airport to a tumultuous welcome.

Two champions, the same lounge and two ‘gigantic’ feats — enough to stir the imagination of a country blooded on cricket. Narang and Bindra make for a fascinating comparison. They are both rifle marksmen, who share a common platform and have the same goals — and, of course, live the same dream day in and day out. One is taciturn, shy and inhibited, while the other is completely the opposite. As can be expected of a Hyderabadi, Narang is so full of zest, enthusiasm and energy that one simply gets drawn into a lively conversation that is as engrossing as it is educating. On the other hand, Bindra is very detached, sometimes, rather icy, which can be a put off for some, but then the world champion, by his own admission, is made like that. “Actually, I am shy … I am like that,” says Bindra in a matter-of-fact manner. After that, there’s pin-drop silence.

After a brief interlude, someone pops a question about his preference for training at his personal shooting range in Chandigarh, rather than with the others at the national camp. “I am not at the range for a fashion event ... I am practicing wherever I am.” Again, a pregnant pause!

Is there an interesting rivalry brewing with Narang? “It’s a very individual sport where 150 shooters are lining up at the same time. You can only think about your own performance,” he replies.

Still, it is evident. However, as he words it, there is no disguising the fact that a very ‘intense’ and ‘productive’ rivalry has taken shape. There is a rather interesting story about how Narang came into the limelight and Bindra had a ‘role’ to play in that! It was during the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad when Narang was drafted into the Indian squad after Bindra made himself unavailable due to a coaching stint abroad. Bindra’s loss was Narang’s gain and the then 23-year-old made everyone sit up and take notice by clinching gold in his pet event, despite the demise of his grandfather a couple of days before the meet.

Two years down the line and the national championships at the same venue. Bindra’s gun silenced the partisan Hyderabad crowd rooting for Narang at the Gachibowli Complex in December 2005. Narang had a resigned look on his face as he stood in a corner eyeing the Chandigarh hotshot. He probably wanted it much more than Bindra in front of his home crowd, but Bindra had thwarted him.

Then came the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and Narang touched the sky, literally, pushing Bindra to contend for baser medals. Even as the cool and casual Hyderabadi was being lauded for his ‘four-star’ Melbourne performance, he flew to Guangzhou, China and returned with a World Cup gold — the third by an Indian and the first by a rifle shooter. Bindra cannot be human if, in addition to normal ambition, he wasn’t also spurred on by the rather unwarranted criticism. After all, it was Bindra who was the first to burst into the limelight, not Narang. It was he who had won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna years ago (and was heavily criticised for it). Zagreb, this week, was his moment — a chance to silence everyone once and for all. He did.

At one level, the gold is spectacular, at another, it is merely an appendage to the real triumph — one in the eye for his detractors. At the moment, all is quiet on the eastern front, with Narang probably biding his time and awaiting his day. As with Bindra’s detachment, the genial façade of the Hyderabadi probably hides an iron will. Both, by the look of it, will not like to settle for second best. For India, though, this signals some glorious times ahead.

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