He is neither as enigmatic as India’s first individual gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, nor as engaging as the country’s first-ever — RVS Rathore. It’s tough to describe pistol shooter Vijay Kumar. So India, conveniently, doesn’t describe him at all.
Overlooked slightly when names of India’s greatest shooters are reeled off – and ignored for no apparent reason, really – the country seems to have suddenly woken up to noticing London’s silver medallist in rapid-fire, who will be the flagbearer of the contingent at Glasgow. Under-rated leader for the under-stated Games.
But it’s a good time to stick your neck out and say that Kumar perhaps won India its most-important Olympic medal among the four that the country’s collected in the last three editions. The armyman from Himachal aced the ruthless elimination and weeding out process to determine the champion in an international shooting match, while becoming the king of the ‘knockout finals format’ in London.
Two years on, every shooting event is decided by this knockout duel, and this Commonwealth Games will be the first mega-event beyond the niche shooting World Cups that will see qualifying scores not being carried over to the final stage, with all finalists starting afresh in what is akin to football’s penalty shootout, a format introduced last year after the high applause it got in Vijay’s event at London.
It is nobody’s contention that penalty shootouts are completely fair; countless nights stretching into dawn, with sleepy heads still shaken in disbelief and clucking of tongues the next morning during the FIFA World Cup, are testimony to that.
But nobody can deny the potential for drama in these knockouts, and the intense pressure and mental games that occur behind poker faces of a shooting final. What makes Kumar the undisputed leader of India’s new generation of shooters is his nerveless proficiency in this saga of strained sinews, that shooting is reduced to when in a duel. At Woolwich’s Royal Artillery Barracks, Vijay pulled it off almost with nonchalance, coming into contention out of an almost obscure position from the qualifiers to win silver.
The sub-plot to the Commonwealth Games drama though, is that Indians are expected to out-score everyone else in qualification, and then be marked men (and women) with rank outsiders and dark horses itching to shoot them out. Like Kumar did to London’s world-record holder Alexi Klimov.
Vaibhav Agashe, a mental trainer who’s been working with a host of young shooters currently with Olympic Gold Quest, explains the downside of being favourites. “At the World Cups or Asian level, competition is high, so Indians don’t qualify in top positions, and go into finals with no pressure. At the Commonwealth Games though, we will line up in the first and second positions in most events in preliminaries. From there on, pressure continued…