Skeet shooter Sheeraz Sheikh competed in his first World Cup final on Thursday. Even though he didn't medal, it was a significant landmark for the 28-year-old, coming as it did in a competitive field headed by Olympic champion Gabrielle Rossetti. For an event that is considered the weakest of India's shotgun disciplines, Sheikh's rise -- he eliminated former world champion Jesper Hansen -- would be heartening.
Despite his heritage in the sport, Sheikh had a different interest growing up in Meerut. He played cricket and was fairly good at it. "We didn't have the IPL when I started playing but cricket was always a religion," he says. "Of course I wanted to play for India. I was a part of the Uttar Pradesh camps at the U-14, U-16 and U-19 age groups." A leg-spinner, Sheikh recalls battling for a place with India internationals Piyush Chawla and Karn Sharma. Indeed, while the rivalry with the latter was tempered by the fact that they were residents of the same neighbourhood, Sheikh still takes pride in the fact that he once pipped Sharma to a place in the UP sports hostel. "I was selected to the hostel a year before he was," he says.
Sheikh isn't the only skeet shooter in the Indian team to have a cricket connection. Senior teammate Mairaj Khan -- who missed out on a place in the Olympic final by a single point -- has a cricketing background too, having partnered Virender Sehwag for Jamia Millia Islamia in college cricket. "Before I knew Mairaj as a skeet shooter, I knew him as a senior cricketer in the state," Sheikh says.
Talent notwithstanding, Sheikh was nudged out of the sport for a reason not of his doing. "At the U-19 level, I got a call from the chief selector congratulating me that my son had been selected for the state team," says father Yasin. "But I was also told quite clearly that I was expected to pay Rs 5 lakh. I wasn't going to pay a bribe. So it was around then that Sheeraz understood that he had a better chance in shooting."
Shooting was perhaps what Shaikh was meant to do. "His grandfather, Mateen, was a well-known shikari (hunter)," says Yasin Sheikh. "He was famous for hunting down several man-eaters." Yasin himself was an avid shooter. Despite losing his right arm in an accident, he would continue to shoot skeet, winning medals at the state level. Sheeraz's cousin Saniya Sheikh is an international shooter as well, having represented the country over the last 10 years.
And so aged 18, Sheikh let go of the cricket ball and picked up a shotgun. It wasn't the easiest choice. The game is an expensive one. "Sheeraz's elder brother, Saif, sacrificed his ambitions to enable his younger brother to shoot," says Yasin. According to his father, Sheeraz himself has shot with the same Berretta for the last 10 years. Duct tape is wrapped around a large crack in the stock.
The equipment might be a bit worn, but there is no doubting Sheeraz's ability. Coach Ennio Falco, the 1996 Olympic skeet gold medallist, thinks so too. Sheeraz wouldn't have originally made the shooting squad for the World Cup but the coach insisted on having him in the team. "It's the season's first competition and we are still working on improving the basics," Falco says. "His overall performance augurs well for skeet."
But while Sheeraz has found success in his adopted sport, he still maintains links with his first passion. "Me and Mairaj still play local games when we get time from our shooting," he says. His old friends on the field are supportive too.
"They can't believe that I walked away from cricket," he says. "Karn keeps asking me if I miss playing cricket but he is happy that I am competing at the highest level. I played cricket because I wanted to play for India and shooting has given me that chance. When you see the flag on you jersey, I feel I am doing something special. This is what any sportsman dreams of."