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Indian archers look for silver lining in missed gold

Tarundeep Rai, who won the silver medal with the men's recurve team at the World Championships in Netherlands this month, was also part of the Indian team when they last made the final in 2005, in Madrid. World Archery

Hours after they lost the recurve team final to China on Sunday, India's Tarundeep Rai pulled out his phone, looked up the live World Cup cricket scores and turned in for the night feeling a little less miserable.

On a weekend when attention, worship and TRPs solely belonged to the India-Pakistan cricket match at Old Trafford, the Indian men's archery team were struggling to find the centre shot (the left-right alignment when the nocked arrow sits on the rest) in a small town with a difficult name, 's-Hertogenbosch (literally meaning Duke's forest), in south Netherlands.

It was the first time in 14 years that the Indian men's recurve team had made a World Championships final. India has never won a gold medal in the tournament. The common conjunction between India's previous medal at the event (also a silver, in Madrid 2005) and this edition of the World Championships was Rai. He was part of the earlier medal-winning team along with Jayanta Talukdar, Gautam Singh Sardar and Robin Handsa. It's also the reason that unlike current team members Atanu Das and Pravin Jadhav, Rai isn't mighty kicked about the second-place finish.

"We had a chance to create history," says Rai, mildly dejected. "We a won silver medal 14 years ago too, so it's something that's hard to feel entirely satisfied about. Of course this time we also won an Olympic quota and in the larger picture it's a good sign for the team since we've been going through a poor patch over the past couple of years."

In their group huddle before the start of the event, Rai was the first to speak. "My focus for the team was simple. Beyond participation and an Olympic quota, we should go for a medal, I told them. Bas maine gold nahi kahan. Aisa bhi keh sakte hai haar haar ke thaka aadmi ka himmat hi nahi hua (Just that I didn't mention anything about winning a gold medal. Or you could also say that for someone who's tired from all the losses there was no courage left to muster and say so)," he says.

The slump Rai talks of breaking free from isn't imagined. This was the first time that the Indian team made the final of any world event since their silver medal at the Wroclaw Stage IV World Cup in 2014.

"Questions were being raised both individually and on the teams as to what we were up to. We knew we had the potential but somehow we couldn't deliver in tournaments. This team combination just clicked and it's a good blend of the young, experienced and veteran," Rai, 35, jokes, adding that now even he refers to himself as 'veteran' taking a cue from the prefix that newspapers attribute to him with striking regularity.

Finishing among the top eight teams fetched world No. 17-ranked India an Olympic quota and they went on to take apart a higher-ranked Netherlands in the semi-finals through a shoot-off.

In archery, Olympic quotas belong to the country and not the athlete, and typically the national federation holds pre-Games selection trials to pick the team. It's unlikely, however, that this combination will see a change. For Rai, who made his Olympic debut in 2004 in Athens, this will be his third and likely last Games appearance.

In the final, they were up against a fairly inexperienced Chinese team, ranked fourth in the world and whose youngest member was just 18. But they were coming off a World Cup win in Antalya. "It does make a difference when you're just fresh off a final experience and a gold medal," says Das. "In this case, they'd won less than a fortnight ago and we couldn't match their scores or confidence. We have an Olympic quota and a few learnings as takeaway, so that's the bright side."

While these archers were working their way to Olympic quotas and medals, the Archery Association of India (AAI) was facing a walloping from World Archery for its administrative mess. On the sidelines of the World Championships, an extraordinary executive board meeting of the top body delisted the Indian federation and gave it a one-month ultimatum, which runs out on July 31, to either get its house in order or face suspension.

The quagmire that AAI is caught in was also partly responsible for Indian archers withdrawing from the Medellin World Cup in April. The 23-member contingent was reportedly approved and booked on a last-minute travel plan very close to the tournament, which left them with no option or time to reschedule their trip following a flight delay. Already starved of big-match experience, this was a severe blow for the team.

"In a final, your mental strength faces its biggest test," says Rai. "Our team had participated in only one tournament together before this and losing this chance was a severe blow. Despite being the senior-most member, I hadn't been in a final in five years myself and someone like Jadhav didn't even know what a final is supposed to look or feel like. Had we participated and made the final at Medellin, we would have been in a much better space to fight for a gold medal at the World Championships."

Since he made his international debut at the 2003 Asian Championship at the age of 19, Rai has witnessed a change in landscape, attitudes and competition standards over the years. "Earlier, even if one member was having a bad run of form, the other two could pull the team through in an international competition. Now, almost everyone, even teams who are 10 spots below us in ranking, is shooting nothing less than 10s. So it's tough to recover from even a few bad shots." In the five-colour, 10-ring target, it's a chase to hit the 12.2cm 10 ring within the 122cm recurve target.

Domestically, the scene, Rai says, has now shifted from one of mistrust and diffidence to encouragement and cooperation. "Earlier if a fellow national archer gave you any advice, you would be doubtful. Kahin yeh mujhe galat toh nahi sikha raha, hum sochte the (Is he giving us the wrong guidance, we would think). Now communication is trusting, everyone realizes that in a team event you can't be selfish. If one of us scores poorly, the whole team's chances are ruined," Rai says.

For Das, beyond Olympic quotas and test events, this year has another important occasion in waiting -- his wedding with former world No. 1 recurve archer Deepika Kumari. Acquaintances for over a decade, they carefully picked out the pre-Olympic year for marriage.

Rai jokes that he was not aware of the grapevine until their formal engagement last year. "That's the downside of being seen as a veteran," Rai laughs. "I'm the last to know."