The shooting veterans guiding India's next gen talents to glory

Shooter Mehuli Ghosh along with her coach Joydeep Karmakar seen after the practice session during ISSF Rifle and Pistol World Cup at Dr. Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi. Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

He's had his share of success in international shooting, as a fourth-place finish at the 2012 Olympics and a World Cup silver (the only medal by an Indian in the 50m prone event) would suggest, but Joydeep Karmakar feels he was always destined to be a coach.He has the newspaper clipping as proof, too.

"It's strange when I think about it. I was 15 when I won my first medal at the national championships. The local newspaper did a profile of me and they asked me what my goal was. I didn't reply that I wanted to win a world title or anything. I said I wanted to be the first Indian coach of (an) Olympic-winning team," says the 39-year-old.

India has high hopes that Karmakar's ambitions might be fulfilled through 10m air rifle shooter Mehuli Ghosh. The 18-year-old Commonwealth Games silver medallist isn't part of the Indian squad at the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi but will still be competing in the MQS (Minimum Qualification Score) category. Shooters in this category are not eligible for medals, but their scores are considered for Olympic quotas.

While two older compatriots, Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil, have already won quotas in the event, there's every chance that if Ghosh continues to rack up high scores, she might eventually earn the right to claim that quota spot.

Ghosh isn't the only young Indian shooter who will be expecting to perform well at the New Delhi World Cup. Of the 23-member Indian squad competing at the tournament, eight were shooting junior competitions until last year (Of those, six are still eligible to shoot in the junior category).

Their youth doesn't diminish their achievements - pistol shooter Manu Bhaker has already won a World Cup gold, Saurabh Chaudhary has an Asian gold in the 10m pistol, while 25m pistol shooter Anish Bhanwala has a gold at the Commonwealth Games. Now they are expected to do well at the World Cup too.

While India's junior shooters have come in for deserved praise, what unites them -- apart from their success -- is the kind of coaching acumen they have in their corner.

Bhaker, Chaudhary, Bhanwala, and Adarsh Singh were moulded during their time in the junior national team by Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist Jaspal Rana, while multiple Commonwealth Games champion Samresh Jung continues to work with them in the senior team. Olympic finalist Suma Shirur trained the rifle shooters Sunidhi Chauhan and Divyansh Panwar while 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Gagan Narang has been working with 10m rifle shooter Elavenil Valrivan.

It's not a stretch to say that the fact that some of the greatest Indian shooters of a previous generation are now working behind the scenes has made the difference to the latest crop of Indian talent.

Veteran foreign coach Pavel Smirnov, who is with the senior Indian team, admits as much. "It's a huge advantage for me to work with shooters who have been trained by shooters like Jaspal Rana or Suma Shirur. They have already achieved so much that it gives these young shooters a base to begin with. They are starting at an advantage compared to their rivals. If you are trained by someone like Jaspal, I don't have to do nearly any work with you. Their technique is nearly perfect already. All I have to do is polish a little. The rest is already there," he says.

For Shirur, who began working with the junior team as a high performance coach a year back, the shift from competitive shooting wasn't something she was not expecting. "When I began my shooting career, I would have to travel nearly two hours in each direction to reach the shooting range in Mumbai from my home in new Panvel. After I reached the Olympic final, a range was set up in my suburb but the problem was that I had no one to train with. So out of necessity I coached a lot of the youngsters at that academy. Whenever I got any free time, I would be coaching. It might have been only at a very small level but I already had over a decade of coaching before I actually took it up as a career," says the 44-year-old.

With over a decade of experience at hand working with young athletes, it helped that elite shooters like Shirur were on hand to spot promise that might have at another time simple slipped through the cracks. Sunidhi, who will be competing in the women's 50m 3-position event, will vouch for that. The 21-year-old had only been a casual shooter looking to get an NCC certificate three years ago when Shirur, who had been coaching at the Madhya Pradesh Shooting Academy in Bhopal, noticed her.

"Considering I started my career so late not many people would have given me any attention. But Suma ma'am did. If it wasn't for the fact that my very first coach was Suma ma'am, I might not have been in the position I'm in, where I'm about to compete in a World Cup," she says.

It isn't just talent spotting, though.

Chinki Yadav credits Jaspal for instilling a high-level competitive drive in her. "The biggest difference between juniors and seniors is that we were disciplined so thoroughly at a young age. Jaspal sir once caught me coming exactly one minute late for morning yoga practice. He didn't tell me anything but that day during our practice session, he must have made me shoot for three hours straight. I shot some 600 shots in that period. When someone like Jaspal teaches you something like this, it sticks in your head. No one is going to run after you to train at the senior level, but I've never had problems with my discipline after that," says the 21-year-old, who will be competing in the 25m rapid fire pistol event.

While Shirur isn't a member of the coaching setup for the senior squad, her former students continue to look up to her. "I'll still get calls from my kids. Some time back I got a call from Divyansh, who felt he had some problem in the trigger mechanism of his gun, asking what he could do to fix it. I didn't have to do anything. All I told him was to give him confidence that he would be able to manage," she says.

All this, of course, is vastly different from what shooters like Karmakar experienced when he was a competitive shooter. "Our coaches had different priorities. They were not real shooters. Their duty was mostly in managing the team. But that's not the case with this generation," he says.

There are no regrets, though. "We were not as lucky in our time. There wasn't so much of a tradition of high-level shooting in India when we started, but that doesn't mean that should always be the case," says Karmakar.

"We didn't have a name to look up to. These kids have people to look up to. They have an Olympic medal to look up to. We wasted so much time and effort learning how not to do things the wrong way. So now that we can give back, we do what we can," adds Shirur.

And while it might not appear to match the high of actual competitive shooting, Shirur is surprised just how much she now enjoys her role in guiding a new generation. "When I first started coaching, I wondered whether I should take up the responsibility because I was still a very good shooter. But perhaps deep inside, I wanted to look ahead. Now I can't imagine having had doubts. When me and Jaspal (Rana) are discussing these kids, we find ourselves arguing for hours. That's just how invested we are in them now," she says.

For her part, Shirur won't take too much credit for the youngsters' success. "These kids are genuinely talented. When I first started working with the junior team, I was surprised to see the pace at which they adapted. Once they committed to our training methods, their improvement was relentless," she says.

Despite their success, Shirur admits she is often peeved with some of their quirks - most particularly their habit of looking behind them after taking a shot. "Initially I used to get irritated. I don't think I would ever do that. But now I know that this isn't a sign of weakness from a shooter. They simply want a bit of confidence. And I'll just gesture to them that everything is fine. That they have it all in their control," she says.