“Tu sabse chhota hai (field mein), toh sabki phategi.”
This inimitable line from India’s shotgun coach Mansher Singh to the country’s latest 15-year-old silver medallist in double trap, Shardul Vihan, sums up how India has been going about unleashing its teenage mutant ninjas of shooting on the Asian Games here.
After Lakshay Sheoran (silver) and Saurabh Chaudhary (gold), the yet-to-sprout-whiskers Shardul went out at the Jakabaring outdoor range and blasted clay targets like he was sitting around winning at Battlegrounds (PUBG), with only the hyper-active Korean Shin Hyunwoo emerging as the last man standing.
It was apt that the Koreans could sneak one in. India’s much-touted junior shooting program, that has thrown up a bunch of junior champions at the Asian Games in the sport, was riffed off the Korean system close to three years back. “We’d sent a team to Korea to figure why they were doing well with juniors. They came back with findings that Korea was putting school children through a very good shooting program,” National Rifle association of India head Raninder Singh would recall. “We first introduced shooting as a school sport in CBSE schools which brought over 4 lakh students in touch with the sport. Then I went to UGC and requested them for sports quotas in colleges,” he would add.
This was in addition to legislation that permitted students as young as 12 to acquire weapon licenses (earlier age was 21) in what has been a big call. Besides former shooters who’ve taken up mentoring and coaching responsibilities, cutting down the learning-time of youngsters, the NRAI would devote majority budget to its shooting program. “We never had a juniors program. I ensured 51 percent of NRAI’s budget went to junior shoters, and rest 49 percent to seniors. There’s a next batch coming up which is even better,” Raninder would boast, even as a bold selection policy put every seasoned shooter on a notice to not take their place for granted.
It’s a frightening prospect for rivals if 15 and 16 year-olds from India have transitioned nervelessly to a senior meet as cut-throat as the Asian Games. The last step to the Olympic medal is, of course, the steepest, and how Tokyo pans out will determine the success of this policy. But that didn’t stop shock-waves from travelling to China.
After India picked a bagful of medals at the World Junior Championships (48 including 24 gold ahead of China’s 46 with 15 gold) in June this year, this junior policy piqued more than the casual interest. “China sent two people to figure out what India was doing right” Raninder recalls. Word would reach him within 10 minutes of the Chinese starting their enquiries. He chuckles that they were sold a dummy with India’s federation officials not entirely revealing the program to either the curious visitors or the media, and even cheekily sending them down the wrong path.
It is at Jakarta though that the full extent of the junior program would explode on the Asian Games stage, with names beyond Elavenil, Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala coming to the fore. While those like Mehuli Ghosh had lit up the CWG, Raninder insists India’s depth goes even beyond the 15-16 -17-year olds, who might well be the seniors among the juniors being groomed to be unleashed on the world stage and grab quotas for Tokyo. India’s much-touted junior shooting program would thus become China’s envy, Korea’s pride.
While Jaspal Rana, who mentored pistol prodigy Manu Bhaker, has been pleading to cocoon the young and successful shooters who are shooting world record scores even before stepping out of their teens, those like Mansher Singh believe that they need to be equipped for the onslaught of public interest in them once the big medals come knocking.
At Palembang, as he led his second shotgun teen to a silver medal, he would offer a peak into what it means to manage these millennials. “I deliberately roomed with Lakshay and Shardul to keep an eye on them. It’s not like I need to be strict with them and tell them do this, don’t do that, but we have to keep finding ways to make them listen,” he says.
One of the challenges that have needed his discretion in allowing and barring them from overindulgence is video games. “They keep playing this game late into the night even yetsreday called Shoot the World or something (It was actually PUBG),” he says. He needed to gently coax them to sleep early – more carrot than stick. “Well one of them likes baked beans which is available in a dining hall that’s some distance away. So I’d tell him he needs to sleep early if he wants baked beans,” he’d explain.
“Those video games are good because they play it as a team,” he would say, after setting down a rule that all shooters need to be present at team-mates’ finals.
Mansher would need to wrap his brain around both baked beans at the Village and the barrel on the range. Preps in fact started early. “When Shardul came into camp his gun was a little longer than needed, it was messing with his technique – he was pushing forward. We’d spot it early and cut the stock,” he said.
The teens have been a refreshing change for India’s shooting fraternity still smarting from the Rio debacle, which triggered an inquisition under Bindra. India’s senior shooters have managed to weave together a system that’s a safety net for the juniors. Though there’s some things even Mansher Singh has no answers to. “Like the loud music they blast in their bathrooms. I’ll never get that,” he laughs.
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