First day, first show: Shooting's quest for success
The poor performance at Tokyo haunted them for a long time but India's shooters are now ready to make amends
It is perhaps a sign of the growing might of Indian shooting that each time the contingent sets foot in a world event, medal expectations soar. It is for the same reason that the no-show at Tokyo Olympics still rankles, and precisely why the young bunch is expected to add handsomely to India's overall tally 58 shooting Asiad medals when they land in Hangzhou next week.
Since 2018, when Indian shooting got a fresh lease of life with the influx of talents such as Manu Bhaker, Abhishek Verma, and Saurabh Chaudhary, the results have seen a major uptick in World Cups. In 2018, Indian shooters won 10 medals at the World Cups in Olympic events. The tally read 22 in 2019, 17 in 2021, 11 in 2022, and 26 in 2023. In between, we have had a world champion in Rudrankksh Balasaheb Patil besides 14 medals in this year's World Championships alone. Yet, if the hype around the Indian shooters appears to be missing ahead of the Asian Games, it is part of a deliberate design to keep them insulated from the outside noise.
Five years is a long time in sport. After a nine-medal haul at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, the stage looked set for Indian shooters to step up at the Tokyo Olympics. What followed instead was a second successive medal-less Olympics from the shooters and a churn that has seen an overhaul of the squad.
With shooting being dropped from the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games programme, Hangzhou Asiad will present Indian shooters their first shot at redemption at a multi-nation, multi-discipline event. And they couldn't be more ready, if national rifle coach Suma Shirur is to be believed.
"I think our shooters are ready. It's a young but experienced squad that has travelled a lot. There are high chances of us crossing our 2018 mark of nine medals," she said.
Buoyed by a successful World Championships in Baku where Indian shooters secured four Olympics quotas — India now has a total of seven quotas for the Olympics — the 30-strong shooting contingent will be looking to set the tone on the first competition day at Fuyang Yinhu Sports Centre Shooting Range. Shooting is the third most productive sport for India at the Asiad, behind athletics (254) and wrestling (59).
"We begin our events with 10m air rifle on September 24 and I am hopeful of a grand opening. It will put the entire contingent at ease," Shirur said.
The onus will rest heavily on the rifle and pistol shooters who will have Rudrankksh Patil, World Championships bronze medallist Mehuli Ghosh, Bhopal World Cup gold medallist Sarabjot Singh, and the experienced Manu Bhaker leading the challenge.
The squad bears a fresh look from 2018 with a number of seasoned names not making the cut. Four-time Asian Games medallist Sanjeev Rajput, two-time Olympian Apurvi Chandela, and former world No.1 Saurabh Chaudhary have made way for youngsters Aishwarya Pratap Singh Tomar, Ashi Chouksey, and Shiva Narwal.
"Such is the depth in Indian shooting, especially in rifle and pistol events that the squad is bound to change in every Olympics cycle. It is tougher to make the Indian team than win some of the international events. The scores they shoot in training are truly world class," Shirur said.
The Jakarta Games five years back brought some notable firsts for Indian shooting. Saurabh Chaudhary, then 16, broke onto the scene with a gold in 10m air pistol, the first occasion of an Indian winning the event at the Asiad. He also became the youngest Indian to win a medal, of any colour, at the Asian Games but his record stood just for a day as trap shooter Shardul Vihan, aged 15 years, 7 months and 12 days, shot a silver 24 hours later. Experienced pistol shooter Rahi Sarnobat became the first Indian woman to strike gold in the shooting range as India's overall medal tally surged to a best-ever 70.
"I think we are well prepared for the challenge," rifle shooter Akhil Sheoran, who won a bronze at last month's Worlds in Azerbaijan's capital and also booked a quota for next year's Paris Olympics, said. "Personally, I am feeling very confident going into the Asian Games. The technical tweaks I have been working on are beginning to pay off."
"Baku is one of the windiest ranges, so doing well at the Worlds there really means a lot to me. Now that the Olympics qualification is out of the way, I can shoot pressure-free in Hangzhou. I didn't do well at the 2018 Asiad and also missed the bus for the Tokyo Olympics, so Asiad will be my shot at redemption. In many ways, Asian Games can be as tough, if not tougher than the Olympics," the 28-year-old who will line up in the 50m 3P range, added.
Indian shooters will also draw confidence from a rich World University Games campaign in Chengdu in July-August where the Asian Games-bound group of Bhaker, Tomar, Ashi Chouksey, Manini Kaushik, Sift Kaur Samra, and Divyansh Singh Panwar ensured podium finish in their respective events.
Shooters' 14-medal haul out of the 26 that India won must, however, be seen in the right perspective as a number of countries didn't even send their second-string shooters. In the 10m air pistol event that Bhaker won, for instance, the bronze medal went to Chinese-Taipei's Yu-Ju Chen, ranked 64 places below the 44th-ranked Indian. Upcoming rifle talent Sift Kaur Samra won the 50m 3P gold ahead of compatriot Ashi Chouksey and China's Zeru Wang, the latter's last international medal coming at the Changwon World Cup in 2018.
That said, away from the media glare, shooting squad has been diligently preparing for the Asian Games as well as next year's Paris Olympics under the tutelage of High Performance Director Pierre Beauchamp who is known to lean heavily on data and sports science. After initial resistance from some quarters, the squad is largely onboard with Beauchamp's vision. The week-long preparatory camp in Delhi's Karni Singh Shooting Range will end on September 18 following which the team will fly to Hangzhou where a "first day, first show" — as Shirur puts it — awaits.