The phone rings. “Hello,” says Sabir Khan, answering the call.

“Do you offer training for shooting sport?” asks the voice from the other end.

“Yes, we do. Do you want it for yourself?” Sabir replies.

“No, it’s for my 10-year-old son. I want to enrol him at your academy and see if he has the potential. The sport has a lot of scope these days,” the parent explains.

“You are right, sir. Please visit our academy at the Guru Harkrishan Public School in Punjabi Bagh and I will explain you the training modules,” Sabir, a national-level shooter and now coach, concludes the conversation.

Similar activity is seen around 10 km away – at the Champion Shooting Academy in the premises of VSPK International School in Delhi’s Rohini area. Sabir’s younger brother Zakir Khan, a 2010 Commonwealth Championship gold (team) and silver (individual) medallist, is the man in charge here. And one of the bullet points in his bio reads: “Trained world No 1 Shahzar Rizvi when he took up shooting.”

Shikari genes

In short, the two sons of a generator mechanic from Shahjahanpur near Meerut are not just earning a living out of shooting but providing young talented shooters the means and expertise to an expensive sport that was unapproachable for the masses not long ago.

Zakir (left) and Sabir Khan at the VSPK International School Academy (Image: Jaspreet Sahni)
Zakir (left) and Sabir Khan at the VSPK International School Academy (Image: Jaspreet Sahni)

As recently as last month, the seekers for shooting as a sport of choice have only risen after the exploits of teenage sensations Manu Bhaker, Mehuli Ghosh and Anish Bhanwala at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

All of 15, Bhanwala became the youngest to clinch a CWG gold for India when he finished on top of the podium at Gold Coast, winning the men’s 25m Rapid Fire Pistol event. Bhaker, 16, won gold in the women’s 10m air pistol and the 17-year-old Mehuli won a silver medal in the 10m air rifle event.

For the record, all the three teenagers made their CWG debuts at Gold Coast.

If Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics provided the launch pad, Abhinav Bindra’s gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics set the benchmark that coaches like Sabir, Zakir and supportive parents of their young shooters strive to achieve.

The two Pathans got the shooting DNA from their shikari ancestors, especially grandfather Abdul Kardoos and maternal uncle Abdul Salim Khan, who had weapons at home in the Johri village at Baghpat. They introduced Sabir and Zakir to shooting as a competitive sport with a make-shift range at home, where the young lads learned holding with bricks.

Sabir became a national shooter before completing his National Rifle Association of India-accredited coaching course in 2010. Zakir earned international fame participating at the 2006 Asian Games and World Cups between 2006 and 2011.

Expensive sport

Back at the two academies, the phone keeps ringing for enquires and the footfall has risen to an unprecedented count. Quite clearly, the parents have shunned summer camps for something a lot more serious.

“My daughter started shooting as a hobby. Now, it’s been a year and her interest keeps growing,” said Rajiv Sachdeva, parent of an eighth-grader who trains at Sabir’s academy, which runs under the aegis of SportzCraft Inc.

“It is a very expensive sport and not easy to fit in our budget, but we strive to provide our daughter with all the means as our support. I recently bought her a personal air pistol. It cost me around Rs 1.5 lakh, so I could only pay through my credit card. We used to rent it for competitions earlier at Rs 500 a day,” Sachdeva added.

Parents watch while their kids learn to shoot at the VSPK International School Academy (Image: Jaspreet Sahni)
Parents watch while their kids learn to shoot at the VSPK International School Academy (Image: Jaspreet Sahni)

The fact that Zakir participated in the 2006 World Championship in Zagreb with a borrowed sports pistol explains that shooting was and is a niche sport. But things have only improved in terms of making the sport accessible beyond the army kids and those with shikari ancestors.

“Now, it is about the shooter, not the facilities,” said Zakir. “We used to look for opportunities and cash in on those. For example, we would wait for 6-8 hours for our turn to train with a gun. That is not the case now. The onus is more on the talent now and how seriously they practice.”

These days, around 15 shooting sessions in a month for a beginner cost around Rs 5,000, which includes pellets, target cards and the use of pistol/rifle. At competitions, the shooters can rent out the weapons.

And the young prodigies are responding to that facilitation.

At a recent open tournament in Jaipur, Sabir and Zakir’s students won 21 medals – of which 19 were gold, besides a silver and a bronze.

Sport of patience

The progress, though, is not restricted to the domestic level.

Rifle shooters Mandeep Kaur Popli and Mohit Kumar Agnihotri have already represented the country in the international arena. While Mandeep participated in the 2015 Asian Shooting Championship in Kuwait, Agnihotri was part of the team that won gold at the 2017 Asian Airgun Championship held in Japan.

Besides, para-shooter Pooja Agarwal won a silver medal at the 2017 World Cup in Al Ain, UAE, and Yogita Lamba participated in the 2015 Asian Airgun Championship held in Delhi.

The latest additions to the meritorious list are Rahul Chauhan and Ruhan Kapoor, who have been selected for India trials.

“I just tell the parents to not put burden of expectations on your kids,” said Zakir. “It’s a sport of patience, not just in terms of playing but also when you learn and climb up the ladder. It’s a gradual process.”

Meanwhile, Sabir keeps trudging between coaching inside the range and the reception desk to answer inquiries. Just then, a parent sitting in the waiting area whispers to another.

“At this rate, shooting will soon give cricket a run for its money.”