The headline came as a bit of a shock. "Silver for Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary in the 10m Air Pistol mixed team event at the Osijek World Cup." A shake-your-head moment.
How could they not win? Don't they always win?
Welcome to the world of Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary, two teenagers who have so dominated their shooting event in the last couple of years that we, the fans, now feel entitled enough to be disappointed by a World Cup silver medal.
December 2017. Thiruvanathapuram. Bhaker steps up for the senior 10m air pistol event at the National Shooting Championships. She qualifies comfortably for the final, where she goes up against multiple national champion, national record holder, and bonafide superstar of the sport, Heena Sidhu. Bhaker not only beats the best pistol shooter in India, but breaks her long-standing national record while doing so. Sidhu's stunned. Bhaker's nonplussed. On the podium, she cracks a faint smile. The kind that tells you, 'there's more to come, so much more.' She's 15.
Four months later, she would beat Sidhu again, this time to win gold in the Commonwealth Games.
August 2018. Palembang, Indonesia. Chaudhary tops the qualifying stages of the senior 10m air pistol event at the Asian Games -- an event that is being contested by multiple Olympic and World Championship medallists. In the final, he stays just behind former world champion Tomoyoki Matsuda, keeping the pressure up, till in the last round beating him. Through the event, Chaudhary's movements are a study in minimalism. You can barely discern that he's breathing. At the end, after the shot that clinches gold, there's a shy smile and a quiet nod. 'I shot, I won. Now, let's just move on'. He's 16.
By the end of 2018, Bhaker and Chaudhary had established themselves as the faces of Indian shooting. Young, fearless, winners -- Bhaker had six junior World Cup golds, Chaudhary three. They both won gold in the Youth Olympics. The kind of athletes brands are built on. Forget 'the future of the sport', they were 'the here, the now, the present.'
So, when in 2019 the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) coaching staff was working on a pair for the new Olympic event of 10m air pistol mixed team, it was a no-brainer: put your best two shooters on the same team.
Samaresh Jung, the pistol team's high performance coach, says, "the NRAI was guided by [a] selection policy where we pair the number one in Men's with the number one among Women's and second with second and so on..."
You can say it worked. They won gold in their first World Cup together at New Delhi. They won it at the next one in Beijing. Then in Munich, where they smashed (their own) world record. Then Rio. Four World Cups, four gold medals. In 2021, after more than a year of no competition, they won it in Delhi. Five golds out of five.
They have won at the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games, at World Cups and World Cup Finals. Chaudhary has finished on the podium in every event he has entered at a senior World Cup. He has 12 World Cup medals, eight of which are gold.
Bhaker -- widely regarded as more inconsistent than her partner -- has 13 medals, nine gold. She is 13th on the list of all-time gold medal-winning women shooters at World Cups. 13th. All-time. Remember, she only won her first World Cup gold in 2018. *Air quotes* Inconsistent.
Which is why the recent Osijek silver just didn't feel good enough -- even if the defeat came at the hands of the reigning world champions Artem Chernoushov and Vitalina Batsarashkina (The last World Championships were held in 2018, a year before Bhaker and Chaudhary teamed up. The next is slated for 2022).
Success isn't just hoped for with these two, it's expected.
Funny thing is, shooting is not a team sport. It is, if anything, arguably the most intensely individual of all Olympic Sports. As rifle legend Niccolo Campriani once put it, "if meditation were a sport, it'd be shooting."
The mixed team category was added by the ISSF to promote gender parity -- now women and men shoot for exactly the same number of medals. But a bureaucratic rule change can't undo years, decades, of habit and training, it can't on its own change the DNA of a sport. Success and failure in shooting depends on absolutely nobody but shooter and gun. There is no subjectivity, no room for interpretation, no points for style. It's all there in black and white... hit the target in a certain place, you get certain points. Get the most points, you win. That's it.
What, then, makes for a great team in this sport?
"In this current format, it is a matter of pairing the two strongest shooters together," says Jung. "When ISSF started the Mixed Teams, there was a phase when other aspects like rhythm of a shooter etc. were also in play, but not in this current format that much."
There is no passing, no baton exchange, nothing you do changes according to what the other person does. No matter what score your partner scores, your job description isn't affected - just keep shooting for as high a score as you can.
Jung explains that what makes Bhaker and Chaudhary such an excellent team is the simple recognition of the fact that this isn't a team sport at all. "I think what they do best to help each other is not communicate at all while shooting. I think that makes them focus totally on the task at hand."
If there's an instance where Bhaker takes a little too long to take her shot, Chaudhary barely looks at her. Nothing in his demeanour indicates he wants her to hurry up. When he's in the zone, he's in the zone. He's a crack shot and he knows however tight the time limit gets, he can get his shot away. And vice-versa.
There's something deeper too. Watch them closely when the event is underway, and it's almost as if they are shooting against each other in an individual gold medal playoff.
It's an intense, internal competition that has been running for years now, says Suma Shirur.
Shirur is the junior rifle team's high performance coach and has been with the shooting contingent since 2016. She's seen up close the growth of Bhaker and Chaudhary, and she believes that this sense of competition is a common factor that links all the junior shooters who are making splashes in the senior team, be it rifle or pistol. "The competitiveness amongst them is a positive advantage. 'The other person is shooting well, I want to shoot better!' This [mentality] is there in [all] the juniors," she says, before adding with a chuckle, "I like it so much."
"When two people are shooting together, you do feel the support, but you also feel the push. When one person is doing well the other also gets motivated and pushes themselves.. And if one person is not doing well, it's very important that the person doesn't get affected, and concentrates on their performance."
Essentially, come what may, you do you. And that's what Bhaker and Chaudhary do ever so well.
"They know each other way too well. It's not important whether you are friends... the point is that you've been together and you're comfortable with each other's company," says Shirur.
And they are.
Early in 2019, during the New Delhi World Cup, Bhaker told ESPN about Chaudhary. "What I like about Saurabh is that he is very calm. He is very positive all the time. Even if we are down, he will always believe that we have a chance. He never loses hope." That event had been the first time they'd shot together at that level, and it showcased just what made them special. When Bhaker faltered, shooting a couple in the low 9s, Chaudhary hit consecutive high 10s. When Chaudhary had a rare slip into the 9s, Bhaker stepped up to keep the total up.
In a shooting team, nothing builds chemistry quite like pure skill.
They are both quiet and usually keep to themselves off the range, and will modestly praise the other when asked about their partnership. But they have very different personalities. As the cliché goes, Bhaker is the fire to Chaudhary's ice -- and it works perfectly.
Bhaker's soft-spoken nature can often be misinterpreted as shyness but the decibel count has nothing to do with the spunkiness of her words. She questions everything and everyone, and answers those asked of her in bold detail. Chaudhary, on the other hand, is reticent -- something Bhaker regularly jokes about -- and when he does speak, his statements are often as bland as his expression on the range.
What they do have in common is great support from their families.
Bhaker's father, who is in the merchant navy, has always backed her love for sport. Up till the age of 14, she was a state-level boxer and kabaddi player, and a martial arts champion. She chose shooting, she told The Quint in 2020, because it is "a transparent sport. As much hard work as you put in, [you get rewarded for it]. In team sports, if your team doesn't perform, you won't be able to win." Ramkrishan Bhaker backed her to the tilt, investing heavily in his daughter's dream.
Chaudhary didn't do anything other than shooting, and would do a 24km round trip by cycle to and from the shooting range where he learned his craft. Amit Sheoran, his coach, told The Times of India recently that Chaudhary would train from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. everyday, while most others packed up by 10:30 a.m., Sheoran's concerns of heatstroke dismissed summarily. Chaudhary's father, Jagmohan Singh, a farmer, took out a loan to ensure his son trained with the best of equipment. His son's dedication warranted backing.
They've both been rewarded with the sight of their children smashing through conventional pathways to shooting superstardom.
Is there a chance, though, that all this -- the hype, the expectations, the pressure -- could get to them when it really matters?
Shirur isn't worried all that much. The shooters in her squad have been at this for far too long, and have been delivering on their potential with way too much consistency.
"With juniors, we were on a world record spree... each day, it's like 'ma'am, world record hua kya (was a world record set)?' If I say 'nahi hua (didn't happen)', they go and make a world record in the finals," she laughs. "The juniors all grow up in this environment, once they come here [the senior competitions], they're quite comfortable with the competitiveness [and the pressure]."
As Chaudhary likes to say in that matter-of-fact manner of his, "I don't feel nervous," when crunch time comes. Now, after a year's wait, he and his partner will get their chance, finally, to show the world just how good they are, on the grandest stage of them all.
Come July 27, Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary will be out to prove that they are as good as gold.