Men’s 10m air pistol has been one of the most successful and competitive categories in Indian shooting over the last few years.

In 2018, Jitu Rai won the gold and Om Prakash Mitharval won the bronze at the Commonwealth Games in April, national champion Shahzar Rizvi became the world No 1 in 10m air pistol in May after his remarkable performances, including world-record gold and silver at the ISSF World Cups.

However, none of these three have made it to the two-man Indian contingent for the Asian Games; it is headlined by breakthrough shooter Abhishek Verma. To beat such a strong field and make it to the national team is no mean feat. But what makes his success even more remarkable is the fact that the 29-year-old shooter started competing only three years ago, did not figure in the India top-10 until a year ago, and is yet to make his debut for India.

The lack of experience did not deter him and the Haryana shooter is now the India No 1 in 10m air pistol, shooting 585 in qualification and then winning the gold beating Deepak Sharma, Jitu Rai and Amanpreet Singh in the Selection Trials 5 in June. He will represent India at the Asian Games in the individual as well as the mixed-team event and then go on to play in the world championship, without having played a single ISSF World Cup.

Hobby shooter turned India No 1

For a hobby shooter turned professional, making his India debut at an event as prestigious as the Asiad is a fascinating story. But his journey to the India berth is even more interesting. Before picking up a pistol, Verma has tried his hand at law, Indian Administrative Service and computer science. However, he found his true calling once he moved from his native Haryana to Gurgaon.

“I was always interested in shooting and swimming, right from my childhood,” he told Scroll.in, about his unconventional start. “Now, there are many shooting ranges all over; in Haryana itself every district has one. Back then, there used to be just one or two ranges in the state. In 2015, one shooting range opened near where I stay in Hissar and I joined it. I was looking at shooting as a hobby, I didn’t take the sport seriously as a career.”

“Instead, I studied B Tech in Computer Science, but jo soch ke kiya tha, who majaa nahi aaya (I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would). Then I went for IAS coaching for a year, but the level was very tough. Then I got interested in law because my father is a judge in Haryana. I studied law at Kurukshetra University. It was only after that I started shooting as a hobby and the hobby then brought me here,” he added.

However, the hobby metamorphosed into a passion in the year gone by.

“Last year, I decided to take it more seriously,” the 29-year-old said. “I started looking for a good coach and asked my colleagues. I then came to Gurgaon to train with Omendra Singh at the Eklavya Sports Shooting Academy He is a shooter who used to be with the Army Marksmen Unit himself. It then that I began shooting in earnest.”

Abhishek Verma with Yashaswini Deswal after winning gold in 10m Air Pistol Senior Mixed Team category at the 18th KSS Memorial Shooting Championship.
Abhishek Verma with Yashaswini Deswal after winning gold in 10m Air Pistol Senior Mixed Team category at the 18th KSS Memorial Shooting Championship.

Verma had participated in the National Shooting Championships in 2015 and 2016 but his scores were not that good. “My first Nationals with [Omendra] sir was in 2017 and my performance there was very good. I won a silver in the civilian category and my individual ranking overall in India moved to third,” he said.

The Nationals at the end of 2017 was the turning point of sorts as he put in some consistent scores since the 2018 season began.

“Then came the selection trials for international events where I did well,” he said. “In trial 1 the score was okay but did better in trial 2, winning the gold. My national ranking then climbed to fifth in India. And by the time the Selection Trials 5 and 6 ended, my ranking climbed to No 1 in India.”

The Selection Trials, held thrice a year, determine the Indian squad for international events. Shooters are ranked on the basis of their average score across the trials (six in total, inlcuding the KSS Memorial Shooting Championship) and the latest four of the shooter are considered for the ranking.

Verma has also traveled with the Indian team to the ISSF World Cup in Munich and scored 585 in the Minimum Qualification Scores (MQS) category. In the Trial 5 final, he scored a 585+2 (merit points for winning the gold) to all but seal his spot at the top.

Excitement, not pressure

As far as international debuts go, an Asiad and a world championship for Olympic quota places is as tough as it can get. But Verma, who has the experience of overcoming big names, is going to follow his coach’s advice.

“[Omendra] Sir always told me that the competition is with myself] If you think about others, you will not be able to play,” he said.

“I had seen all the well-known shooters only on TV or in the news. So of course there was a little pressure to stand next to them and compete with them. On the other hand, you have to control your match. It is your own performance, you have to give the best and you can’t do that if you are thinking of your competitors. Shooting is an individual sport after all,” he added.

For now, the 29-year-old is putting in double the effort to translate his national success into the international level. Last month, he was part of the national camp in Bhopal and was training in Delhi before leaving for Indonesia.

“I have doubled the hard work and practice. Earlier, I trained for three or four hours, I now train for six hours,” he said.

But that is as long as he is in India. Ask him how he plans to approach his first major competition in Indonesia and he says that he doesn’t feel jittery, but is more excited.

“Pressure not so much, I am more excited because I will be representing India for the first time and it is at an event like Asian Games. I will try to give it my best shot,” he said.

Will the late bloomer’s best shot be enough for him to upset the scales in India colours in a fiercely-competitive category? We will know in a few days.