It’s quite simple: if you had to pick one sport, 2019 belonged to Indian shooting.

Hitting the target with metronomic regularity, India’s success in a phenomenal 2019, at times, made fans pinch themselves: a non-cricketing event is being dominated at the international level by India with such consistency.

At the forefront of the incredible showing was an extremely talented youth brigade that knew no fear.

Sample these facts: in 2019, three Indian shooters – Elavenil Valarivan, Saurabh Chaudhary and Divyansh Singh Panwar – ended the year as No 1 in their respective disciplines. Abhishek Verma and Saurabh Chaudhary swept all the four gold medals in 10m air pistol in the four World Cups. And in the rifle/pistol events India not only topped the medal standings of all the four International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup stages this year, but also collected a whopping 22 medals that included an awe-inspiring 16 gold medals.

Overall Medal Tally (ISSF World Cup 2019)

Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  India (IND) 16 4 2 22
2  China (CHN) 8 13 15 36
3  United States (USA) 5 4 1 10
4  Russia (RUS) 4 5 3 12
5  Hungary (HUN) 4 1 1 6

The number of Olympic quotas, which now stands at a record 15, is not a only refection of the country’s rapid rise in the sport over the last one year but also sets up the shooters nicely for a record haul in Tokyo Olympics, after the meltdown at Rio de Janeiro.

Indian shooting’s best show at the Olympics remains the two medals won at London in 2012, but if the shooters’ exploits in recent months are anything to go by, the country can hope to emulate that in Tokyo.

India's Olympic shooting quota spots

Athlete  Discipline  Tournament Date
Anjum Moudgil Women's 10m air rifle World Championship, Changwon September 2018
Apurvi Chandela  Women's 10m air rifle World Championship, Changwon September 2018
Saurabh Chaudhary  Men’s 10m air pistol ISSF World Cup, Delhi  February 2019
Divyansh Singh Panwar Men's 10m air rifle ISSF World Cup, Beijing  April 2019
Abhishek Verma Men’s 10m air pistol ISSF World Cup, Beijing  April 2019
Rahi Sarnobat Women’s 25m pistol ISSF World Cup, Munich  May 2019
Manu Bhaker Women’s 10m air pistol ISSF World Cup, Munich  May 2019
Sanjeev Rajput  Men's 50m 3-positions rifle ISSF World Cup, Rio  August 2019
Yashaswini Singh Deswal Women’s 10m air pistol ISSF World Cup, Rio  August 2019
Deepak Kumar Men's 10m air rifle Asian Championship, Doha November 2019
Chinki Yadav Women’s 25m pistol Asian Championship, Doha November 2019
Tejaswini Sawant Women's 50m 3-positions rifle Asian Championship, Doha November 2019
Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar Men's 50m 3-positions rifle Asian Championship, Doha November 2019
Angad Bajwa Men's skeet Asian Championship, Doha November 2019
Mairaj Ahmad Khan Men's skeet Asian Championship, Doha November 2019

However, the National Rifle Association of India, having endured an unpleasant experience in Rio, is far from basking in its shooters’ glory yet. Impressed the association is with the performance that may have exceeded expectations but, instead of celebrating, it is looking at ways to protect them from “exploitation and distractions”.

That called for taking some very tough decisions, including preventing the shooters from signing any fresh commercial deals in the run-up to the Olympic Games, a move that may not have found favours with many.

NRAI president Raninder Singh said even the shooters’ parents will have to sign a bond that no exploitation will be done for “financial gains”, something that has been termed infringement of personal space, reported PTI.

Besides the shooters, the federation has also worked extensively towards bringing the sport to where it is today, and it doesn’t want all their hard work to go waste in the Olympic year.

Data check: Indian shooting survived a roller-coaster decade to come out on top

From drawing a blank at Rio to winning a bagful of medals almost everywhere in recent times, it will be wise to say that Indian shooting has come of age, and a lot of credit for the turnaround belongs to the federation as well as the coaches at various levels, despite occasional controversies.

Paying heed to the corrective measures suggested in the Abhinav Bindra-led committee’s scathing report, that was filed after the disastrous outing in the last Olympics, the NRAI changed Indian shooting’s attitude, its policies and practices, and it is paying rich dividends for a while now.

With the help of people like Jaspal Rana and Smaresh Jung, the federation has effectively managed its junior programme, leading to the emergence of talents like Manu Baker, Saurabh Chaudhary, Divyansh Singh Panwar and Elavenil Valarivan.

Thanks to the their exploits as well as some telling contributions from seniors such as Sanjeev Rajput and Tejaswini Sawant, India’s rise has been heartening.

Data check: Breakdown of India’s historic medal tally at ISSF World Cups in 2019

India especially dominated the 10m field consistently, with Apurvi Chandela, Anjum Moudgil and Elavenil Valarivan finishing the year as world number one, two and three respectively.

How, when and why women’s 10m air rifle became the most competitive shooting discipline in India

But nobody jumped as big as Rajput, who came out of obscurity to clinch the men’s 50-metre rifle 3-position silver and the Olympic quota place in the Rio World Cup.

Also, nine medals, including five golds at the September World Cup in Rio and three in the year-end prestigious World Cup Finals in Putian, China, suggest that the sport is headed in the right direction.

Talent to watch out for

Elsewhere, as the year drew to a close, unheralded 18-year-old Zeena Khitta of Himachal Pradesh claimed the air rifle gold medal at the Nationals ahead of the established Mehuli Ghosh and Apurvi Chandela. Likewise, Ayushi Podder won the team silver in 50m rifle 3 positions event at the Asian Shooting Championships in Doha.

Their success also displayed the depth of the talent pool in Indian shooting.

The federation is hoping that its trailblazers carry their form into Tokyo, but before that, the shooters will also have opportunities to win a few more medals and boost their morale further.

One of them is the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi in February.

Away from the range, India vehemently objected to the Commonwealth Games Federation’s move to exclude the sport from the roster for 2022 Birmingham edition.

Refusing to go back on its decision despite pressure from India and the ISSF, the CGF last month made it clear that there was no plan to have a Commonwealth Championship of shooting in India during the 2022 Birmingham Games to make up for the sport’s axing from the multi-sport showpiece. The IOA is now set to withdraw the call for a complete boycott.

Back to the shooting ranges, it remains to be seen if 2020 can live up to the burgeoning expectations from the fans, but with the depth and consistency of the Indian shooting contingent at present, one cannot wait to see how things unfold.