Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary took contrasting roads to get there, but the two Indian teen shooting sensations were standing in the third lane as they geared up for the last final of the season-opening International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup in Delhi. And less than an hour later, the duo were standing on top of the podium as India won the final gold medal to bring the curtains down on their campaign.
Chaudhary, 16, had already won his individual event and secured a 2020 Tokyo Olympic quota for India in 10m air pistol. Bhaker, 17, had fallen short in her two solo events – the 10m air pistol and 25m pistol – and was distraught after finishing fifth in the final of the latter.
But when the two came together in the 10m range on Wednesday, they put up a performance to remember. First, they aced the qualification by shattering the junior record and equalling the senior world record score of 778 with Bhaker scoring 385 while Chaudhary shot 393. Then, they sailed through the final, winning gold with a commanding lead of 5.7 points over their nearest rivals. This was a dominant performance, the kind that shows why India is considered shooting superpower in international circles.
While it was expected that Chaudhary would pull through the ship – as he had in the qualifications – given his consistent rise, Bhaker proved that she could match steps with the Asian Games champion as well, putting the disappointments of the last few days behind.
The two shooters — both gold medallists at the 2018 Youth Olympics — barely spoke to each other during the event. In fact, Chaudhary barely speaks, according to his pistol partner, a fact attested by anyone who has interviewed him.
Their personalities couldn’t be more different either, with Chaudhary being shy and a man of few words while Bhaker is expressive and tries to answer most questions thrown at her in detail. When asked about what his daily routine is like, he has to think before he answers while his partner playfully interjects that she wants to know as well.
“Saurabh’s mindset is a lot different than me in shooting. Actually, he never loses hope. Always positive, always ‘hum kar sakte hain, karenge.’ Doesn’t speak much otherwise,” she told reports after the win.
But as different as their personalities are, they made a formidable pair on the range. The first of the three five-shots series was a lukewarm one, both Bhaker and Chaudhary had consecutive nines but the Asian Games champion had two stunning 10.8s as well (10.9 being the maximum). At the end of the second series, all but one shot was under 10. But it is in the third series that they first went on top of the leader board, before a strange 9.2 from Bhaker and even more inexplicable 8.9 from Chaudhary got them back to second.
The next series was crucial, and that’s when fortune smiled on the Indians as leaders Korea fluffed with a 9.0. The lead the teens got then, a slender one of 0.9, was consolidated to 3.3 and then a splendid 5.2 as Chaudhary kept his grouping consistent. From then on, it was a formality as the teen sensations had all but clinched the gold.
Important medal for Bhaker
Several times through the match, Bhaker made a false start and had to cancel her shot as the noise or something else broke her focus. “I was trying not to cancel, because then the other shooter doesn’t get time to release shot. I was trying but it wasn’t happening, so I cancelled, because it’s good to cancel than release a bad shot,” she said after the match.
As she was shooting first, this extra time taken would mean pressure on Chaudhary. But the teen was as Zen as ever, responding with a calm score of 10 point something. Did it bother him? “No, there is always time.” Classic Chaudhary response, short and to the point.
It is this calm and composed attitude that has seen the 16-year-old from Uttar Pradesh make rapid strides in shooting, from an Asian Games gold on India debut to now two ISSF gold medals on his senior World Cup debut.
Bhaker, however, has still some time to go before she achieves this level of composure and is well aware of that. “The earlier events I couldn’t do well despite efforts. Now I have won a medal, so it builds hope that I can do better next time,” she said.
The questions will keep coming though, as her performance graph has dipped after World Cup senior gold last year. “Confidence is always there that we can match our practice scores in the match. Then I did well in 25m (qualifying) and put in my best effort in the final but it didn’t happen. There was disappointment but it happens. Then I couldn’t qualify for the 10m finals, I told myself I can’t do anything about it now. So I packed, went home. The next day I was confident that I can do well.”
And she did, matching up with the steady Chaudhary and ensuring India ended the World Cup campaign at home, the way it began – with a gold.