If you were at the Karni Singh shooting range last Friday for the final of the trap shooting competition at the 63rd shotgun shooting nationals, you might have come away feeling secure about the robust health of the sport in India. With 224 shooters, there were more participants than in any previous tournament in history - a steady rise from 167 last year and 146 in 2015. The cut-offs for the final were the highest on record too - seven participants were tied at 120 targets shot out of the sky (out of a maximum possible 125). The previous highest ever qualification cut-off was 117 shot just last year. The junior cut-off on Friday was 118.
"These are scores we have never seen before in India," says national coach and former national champion Mansher Singh. "At a national tournament, I've heard they have these sort of scores in Italy (considered the country with the strongest trap shooting tradition). These scores are more common in the Olympics and World Cups," adds Manavaditya Rathore, who shot 120 and won gold at the junior championships. For perspective -- although wind and local conditions would have an impact on the scores -- the qualification cut-off at the Rio Olympics was 118.
For all the records being put up by Indian shooters, the fact remains that as things stand, there will be no Indian participants for the trap competition - one of the two shotgun disciplines (the other being skeet shooting) at the Tokyo Olympics next year. No Indian made it to the final round at any of the World Cups and missed out on their final chance at the Asian Championships in Doha earlier this month.
Kynan Chenai had made the final round after leading the qualification stage with a score of 121 and had only needed to finish in the top five (out of six) to earn the quota. The 28-year-old ended up finishing last. "It was just bad luck. Our final got delayed by over 45 minutes because of the women's final. This wouldn't have mattered but I wear corrective spectacles that aren't as effective in the late evening. I honestly couldn't see any distinction between the target and the background. I started to panic but by then there was nothing I could do," Chenai says.
India would salvage some pride by managing to win two Olympic quotas in the skeet discipline - but the absence of a quota in trap was significant. There is history to the sport here. India has seen trap athletes qualify for every Olympic Games since 1992. The country's first medal in shotgun events at the Asian Games was won by Karni Singh in the trap event and he would compete in five Olympics in the same discipline. "Trap has always been the marquee sport in shotgun shooting. Not just in India but worldwide. It's the formula one of shooting. It's perhaps the toughest category and the best talent usually goes there. In our context, because of history we always want to do well in it. We have a great lineage in trap. That's why it was even more disappointing not to be able to earn a quota," says two-time Olympian Manavjit Sandhu.
The results in the trap event are all the more jarring considering the simultaneous performance of the Indian rifle and pistol teams at the World Cups this year, where shooters won 21 gold medals and claimed 13 quota spots for Tokyo.
Mansher, who has been in charge for a year, admits there has been a problem in the way shotgun and specifically trap couldn't follow on the success of their peers in the small bore events. "The reason for the success of the rifle and pistol guys is the fact that they built on their junior programmes and were able to integrate those upcoming youngsters with the seniors," he says.
Mansher admits that was something the shotgun programme neglected. "We were a little shortsighted in not following the junior programme as followed by rifle and pistol. They began focussing on the junior shooters from back in 2011. They started the policy of experienced medal-winning senior shooters like Jaspal (Rana) and Suma (Shirur) coaching them right from a very long time. We didn't change our approach until last year. We were spreading ourselves too thin and just concentrating on supporting the top 18 senior shooters over the whole year," Mansher says.
The realisation that change needed to be made has sunk in now. But Mansher admits it was likely too late to make a difference for the Tokyo Games. "We should honestly have begun the process of focussing on blooding the youngsters and integrating them with the senior team four years ago at least," he says.
The national trials are now conducted on the basis of recent scores. "The first thing we are doing is opening it up for them to shoot. We want the young shooters to shoot at the national trials and get as many chances as they can to compete against the seniors and get better. Shooting isn't just about technique. Once you get to a competition, you are basically fighting your mind. Competition against better players is critical. The guy shooting 116-117 can easily shoot 120. Now we are giving the young shooters six trials to get there. And if you shoot 120 once, you go to the next competition with a completely different attitude," says Mansher.
Indeed, there are enough signs that the results will likely turn around. At the Asian Championships, the junior team won the gold medal while two shot qualifying scores of 120 and 118. Vivaan Kapoor would go on to win the gold while Bhowneesh Mendiratta claimed silver. That coupled with the high cut-off scores for junior shooters at the current nationals is especially pleasing to Mansher.
The improvement is being noticed by senior shooters, too. "I had a different route as a shooter. When I was a junior, we had less emphasis on the junior program. We had about 50 entries at my first nationals. Now we have four times as many. We had to pay most of our way and all that. Now things are looking up. They are getting to go for competitions so they aren't unsteady or nervous when they are shooting at a big stage. I'm just 28 but they are pushing me all the time," says Chenai.
If Mansher had his way, the juniors would have seamlessly taken over even as the seniors managed to have at least a moderately successful year. But that's not been the case. "At the end of the day, if you don't win medals it's a bad year. By that yardstick, it's a bad year. If you look at the scores it's a decent year. From my personal experience, it's been a good year. I'm seeing a lot of changes. More awareness that the situation is getting tight (in terms of competition between established shooters and youngsters). In terms of scores, we have shot really well. Kynan has shot a 123 at the World Cup in Acapulco. But in terms of results, we don't have a single Olympic quota in trap. So it looks bad," admits Mansher.
The issue with Chenai's spectacles, just as he was on the verge of earning a quota at Doha, was symptomatic of the Indian experience through the year. Even his score of 123 in Acapulco - more than enough to make a final on any other occasion - was shot when James Willett shot a perfect 125, four other shooters shot 124 and Chenai's 123 was shot by another six. "It's been a year where we weren't as lucky as we would have hoped," Mansher admits.
While there exists the possibility of India exchanging one of the rifle or pistol quotas for a trap one, Mansher says he will veto any such proposal. "We haven't earned it. The quota should stay with rifle or pistol," he says. Singh will hold onto the hope that with a single quota remaining based on world rankings at the end of May 2020, Indian shooters -- currently, Chenai is ranked 22 -- will manage to improve their rankings over the course of the next five months.
Even if they don't though, Mansher is satisfied with where trap shooting currently stands. "We were a bit naive in our thinking in the past. We should have opened the sport out to others and got more young blood in. We are halfway there now. Hopefully in a year, you will see the Indian shotgun team making finals and competing for medals like the air and rifle guys are doing right now," he says.