As the 2019 World Championships begin in Doha on Friday, not much is expected out of the Indian contingent. The buzz is predictably non existent given the absence of arguably the sole world class athlete the country can boast of at the moment: Neeraj Chopra. There is no Hima Das. There is no Tejaswin Shankar. Three youngsters who, not long ago, were meant to be the flag-bearers of India’s track and field hopes for a long time to come, will be missing in action.

But away from those big names, there is another youngster who caught the eye at Asian Games last year: M Sreeshankar, India’s current national record holder in long jump.

After being in bronze medal contention for the initial rounds, Sreeshankar eventually finished sixth with a best attempt of 7.95m. Not many will remember his mark from that night but it is not easy to forget the moment when he looked into the camera after his final jump and said: “I’ll be back!”

In an instance, with a splash of arrogance that helps good athletes become better, he endeared himself to Indian fans who were watching. And, sure enough, a few weeks later, he broke the national record with a 8.20 jump at the 58th National Open athletics championships in Bhubaneshwar on Thursday with a jump of 8.20m.

The confidence of youth coming to the fore.

“For sure, I am always optimistic about what’s happening around me,” Sreeshankar told in a recent telephonic interaction. “I am not concerned, over-stressed about what will happen next. I am confident with my abilities.”

On a comeback trail

As it so often happens in the career of a sportsperson, the highs are followed by lows and Sreeshankar is not an exception. He has had to battle injuries this season and is only slowly returning to peak fitness ahead of the Worlds. He has a best of 8.00m this year and that has placed him second last in terms of the season’s best among the 27 jumpers who will start the qualification round. That is also the 66th best time this season, globally.

“Picking up the form I lost because of injury, hopefully things will fall in place soon,” Sreeshankar said.

“We have made some tweaks in my training plan. I am focussing more on the technique right now, it was shattering a bit after my injury. We (his dad and himself) have been working with High Performance Director Volker Herrmann. My runway is not proper, and my approach gives me trouble always. These days we are mainly working on drills for correcting my running techniques,” he added.

Coming from a sporting family (his mom and dad are both athletes), Sreeshankar took to the track and field naturally. From doing both jumps and sprints to start off with, he took up long jump because it worked best for him. From there on, it has been a steady rise to be the best in the country.

The Kerala youngster was on an European exposure trip recently, one that he looks back at fondly.

“I was sent by JSW Sports for the European circuit earlier this year and it was fantastic. I am really thankful for that opportunity where I got to compete in three competitions: France, Denmark and Poland,” he said.

“I got the taste of events work there and it was a great experience to compete with those jumpers. The atmosphere of an event is completely different there. There were fans coming to get autographs from athletes, like they would do with cricketers here, And the prize money was sizeable too, it was all a new experience for me.”

Eye on the finals

And, just like that, six months after leaving his teenage years behind him, Sreeshankar is ready for his first taste of senior World Championships. In the absence of star compatriots, fanfare, and even hope, on Friday, September 27, 2019, Sreeshankar will start India’s campaign in the qualification round of the men’s long jump on the opening day in Doha. The automatic qualification mark for the finals has been set at 8.15m (though jumpers below this mark can also advance if enough athletes do not cross the cut-off distance to make the 12 finalists).

At the back of his mind, he will know that it will require a special effort from him to leave a mark at this event. The 20-year-old has gone past 8.15m just once in his career – the one with which he broke the national record. But, when he marks his run-up, it will be one year exact to the date he managed that freak jump of his.

If he could commemorate the one-year anniversary of his best ever jump with a better one (or one even nearly as good), the youngster would have done himself proud.

“My main focus is to be in the finals of the Worlds,” he said, that confidence in the tone once again striking. “It will be huge for my career if I can qualify; it will be a stepping stone to me for Tokyo.”