“A new era in Indian shooting,” is how Abhinav Bindra described India’s superlative performance at the recently-concluded shooting World Cup.

India topped the medals tally for the first time in an International Shooting Sport Federation competition, finishing with four gold, one silver and four bronze medals in Mexico.

Nine medals at the season’s first World Cup is admirable. In 2017, India managed to win a total of nine medals across four World Cup events, two of which were at home. To equal that tally in 2018’s very first edition, in a crucial year for the sport with the Commonwealth and Asian Games, is an achievement to be celebrated.

But the bigger story underpinning this feat is the age of the medallists. Five of the eight winners are under 25 years, four of them participating their first World Cup and two – Bhaker and Ghosh – are teenagers. In fact, in the entire Indian squad in Mexico, seven each out of 16 men and 17 women are shooters under 25.

India's young medal winners at the first ISSF World Cup in 2018

Shahzar Rizvi, Manu Bhaker, Akhil Sheoran and Om Prakash Mitharval brought home the gold medals, Anjum Moudgil bagged a silver, while Mehuli Ghosh, along with Jitu Rai, Ravi Kumar finished with bronze. Junior World Champion Yashaswini Singh Deswal finished an agonising fourth.

This is a continuation of the impressive performances at the junior level in the last year. Anish Bhanwala, for example, has notched consistent high scores, winning gold and silver in men’s and team 25m rapid fire pistol at the ISSF Junior World Championship in 2017 as well as silver at the Commonwealth Shooting Championships 2017. Ghosh has scored regular 420+ scores, bagging a Youth Olympics quota place with gold in 10m air rifle at the Asian Airgun Championship 2017.

India’s junior investment

But this surge of young shooters is no flash in the pan or early promotion, it is the result of a robust junior shooting programme that was put in place after the 2012 Olympics.

Their consistent, and often spectacular scores, in January’s selection trials, the 2017 National Shooting Championship and several international events in the last year, prove that India’s investment at the junior level has borne fruit.

“The system we have today was initiated by the National Rifle Association of India and the Sports Authority of India in 2012. After Olympics, there is usually a review and a new plan,” Deepali Deshpande, the national junior rifle coach, told The Field.

“Lot of things were changed and everything was segregated – shotgun, rifle, pistol. Each section had an individual set of coaches for senior and junior. Otherwise we had just one set of coach for all categories – rifle, pistol, senior, junior, even shotgun. That was the time the Indian shooting arena was divided into six parts and each section had an independent, individual head, the chief coach, so we had six chief coaches,” she explained.

Young Indian shooters have notched consistent results in the last year.

But it wasn’t just different sections and specialised coaching, the federation also invested heavily in the juniors, giving coaches, who were well-known shooters themselves, a free hand and plenty of support.

“Six years back I took over as junior coaching, and whatever I asked, I got it from the NRAI,” Jaspal Rana, the national junior pistol coach, told The Field. “I asked for coaches because there are 40-50 shooters and I cannot handle them by myself, so I got four-five coaches with me. Then I got armourers with me, physical trainers, mental trainers... all possible foreign trips started after that, a budget was allocated for the junior team, rifle, pistol separately.”

Deshpande added:

“Almost 60% of the budgetary provisions was spent on juniors. We had a minimum of three coaching camps for juniors through the year. Additionally, when they went for international tournaments, there was exposure plus preparation camp.”  

Bridging the gap

The results of that investment almost six years back is now showing. “It didn’t start a month back or a year back, but has been almost six-seven years now. These kids, Mehuli, Anish, Manu, came just now, two or three years back, Rana said.

“The first two-three years were difficult, but this generation is coming directly into the system so they have a big advantage because they start only at a very high level so it is easier for them to go further,” Deshpande said, adding that the previous generation were a little unfortunate, to not benefit from this.

Unfortunate is the overall sentiment, given how many talented Indian shooters have faded away in the climb from junior to senior. India’s shooting talent has manifested itself in several international and Asian shooting medals in the last decade or so. India have a total of 19 medals at ISSF Junior Championship and currently second with 35 medals at the Junior World Cups, with several standout performances.

Back in 2006, Navnath Fartade became the junior world champion in men’s rifle in Croatia. Mampi Das had won the gold at the Asian Shooting Championship in 2011 as well as shot a world record score of 400/400 in women’s air rifle event during the National selections trials the following year.

In 2012, Shriyanka Sadangi won the 10m air rifle gold at the ISSF international junior competition in Suhl, Germany and a silver in the Asian Championships in Doha. She was also part of the team that won the silver at the 13th Asian Shooting Championship in 2015. Shreya Gawande bagged the women’s sports pistol title in 2014 at the 24th Meeting of Shooting Hopes international junior meet in Czech Republic.

At the ISSF Junior Cup 2015, India had several medalist such as Shivam Shukla, Rituraj Singh, Sumedh Kumar, Anant Jeet Singh Naruka and Akhil Sheoran, the only one who persisted.

These are a few examples, highlighting just how difficult it is to sustain this momentum at the senior level. But with this system, and individualised coaching, India is making it easier for shooters to bridge the gap between senior and junior. 22-year-old Sheoran, one of the gold medallists in Mexico, credited coach Deshpande with helping him overcome the final block and win a senior medal. Similarly, Bhanwala attributes his success to Rana’s training.

Seniors take note

Both Rana and Deshpande were from the batch of Indian shooters who started showing consistent results at the international level. There are other India veterans also helping out the youngsters. Joydeep Karmakar, for instance, has been mentoring Ghosh himself, pro bono for the last two years.

The performances of these youngsters is setting higher standards for the veterans as well. “The next generation is ready. Anish is 15 now, and by comparison, we started late,” veteran shooter Jitu Rai told The Field. “This is the first time I am seeing a 15-year-old kid compete in seniors like this and achieve so much. It is not like this is normal, he is going for the Commonwealth Games, after giving a top performance. In every competition, they are doing well,” he added.

Rana believes that the youngsters’ success will give the senior team a tough time, spurring them along.

“This kind of victory will give them more confidence. Once you realise that you have beaten a particular shooter a few years back, you don’t feel that kind of fear. As Indians, you used to be told that ‘Indian ho peeche raho’ [Indians stay behind] now we are told that ‘Indians can beat anyone’,” Rana said.

While the contingent for the Mexico World Cup was more of an experimental side missing some veterans and with 14 shooters under the age of 25, the selection trial scores are there for all to see. The teens have scored on par with the seniors and already the Commonwealth Games squad has six shooters under the age of 25. With the Asian Games soon, and then the build-up the 2020 Olympics, this is a crucial period for Indian shooting. And now that the foundation is strong, it is also one of hope.

With an all-round coaching system and positive results on the international stage at the senior level in place, the future, as Bindra said, is in safe hands.