Anjum Moudgil does a fair amount of painting these days. It's part of her downtime, following long hours of practice at the shooting range ahead of the Asian Games. Working on a soothing sunset scene, the 24-year-old shooter, who will represent India in the women's 50m three position shooting event in Palembang, says painting relaxes her.
Moudgil's canvas in Palembang will be the target paper in the shooting range at the Jakabaring Sports Complex. And it's a form of pointillism India will want all its shooters to perfect - clustering the bullet holes from their rifles and pistols as close to the bulls-eye as possible.
They will certainly hope the finished pieces will look better than they did last time around. 2014 wasn't a very good edition for the shooting squad at the continental tournament, given that in recent times the sport had gotten used to making significant contributions to India's medal tally. The haul of one gold, one silver and seven bronze medals was the worst show since the 2002 Games in Busan.
It's unlikely there will be much similarity between India's results in Indonesia and those in Incheon. For one, shooters have had time to prepare for the games -- five months since the conclusion of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, in contrast to the five weeks they had between the two tournaments in 2014. There are other differences, too. The rules of the sport have changed -- women pistol and rifle shooters will now have to fire as many shots as the men in qualifying rounds; and the number of events have been slashed from 32 to 11. The composition of India's squad has changed substantially as well. Jitu Rai, the sole gold medallist from Incheon, doesn't feature this time around. There are few holdouts from four years ago. Among the 34 pistol and rifle shooters who shot in Korea, just five - Sanjeev Rajput, Ravi Kumar, Heena Sidhu, Apurvi Chandela and Rahi Sarnobat - will be training their sights this time.
With 29 debutants in the pistol and rifle events, this is in fact the youngest team in many years. "This is a very fresh squad, but it's also a very talented squad" says Ronak Pandit, one of the coaches who will be travelling with the team. There's no shortage of accomplishments either. Just this year, 22-year-old Akhil Sheoran (men's 50m three positions) and 16-year-old Manu Bhaker (10m air pistol and 25m rapid fire) won World Cup gold medals, while Moudgil (women's 50m 3 position) won a silver. Teenagers Anish Bhanwala (25m rapid fire), Saurabh Choudhary (10m air pistol) and Elavenil Valarivan (women's 10m air rifle) have won Junior World Cup gold medals with record scores. Of these, Bhaker and Bhanwala also won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games.
Though the Asian Games is of a far higher standard, with competitors from world powerhouses China and Korea, the Indian debutants are unfazed. "If you want to win a gold medal, you really aren't competing against the shooters next to you. You are only fighting against yourself," says Moudgil, and Sheoran agrees. "Because there's a lot of talk about the Asian Games, I was a little nervous at first but I don't think its such a big deal. I might be playing in my first Asian Games but I don't feel very worried about it now," he says.
That self-belief impresses Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra. "These guys just know that they are going to make it. They are not in awe of anybody and that is so wonderful to see. That's what's required. That's what I try and tell them. I meet a lot of athletes, and most of them have this confidence and this self-belief, which is wonderful. The majority of the attitudes that I see in them is quite incredible," he says. .
That confidence marks this team out as unlike others he's seen, says Pandit. "They are coming into the Asian Games straight off a good season. As a kid you will undoubtedly feel you are invincible. It's a nice dimension to this team. They aren't travelling with any baggage," he says. There is a caveat to this, though. "You can travel with all the confidence in the world but once you are competing you are on your own," he says.
Junior national coach Deepali Deshpande shares this assessment. "Their challenge will be to continue their performance. When this year started, the slate was blank. Now everyone expects a lot from them. They too expect a lot from these games. This is a self-imposed pressure. All shooters have to deal with it but it's doubly challenging especially if you are a junior," she says.
There are additional hurdles, as well. The challenge four years ago was having just five weeks to prepare for the Asiad, following the conclusion of the Commonwealth Games. This time players have had to choose between the Asian Games and the Shooting World Championships in Korea that begins on September 5, the latter's importance amplified by the fact that it's the first tournament to offer quota places for the 2020 Olympics.
"Yes, the Asian Games are important. But as a shooter your target will have to be the Olympics. So I want to do well (in Palembang) but I want to use it as a tune-up for the World Cup," says Ravi Kumar, one of the most consistent shooters for India this season and one of the favourites to win the 10m air rifle event.
Pandit too is battling this dilemma, aware that the team that departed Delhi on August 13 could end up struggling at both competitions. The fact that Indian shooters have -- notwithstanding the break between the CWG and the Asiad -- had a hectic schedule, featuring multiple World Cups and subsequently trial matches to select the Asian Games squad, this season hasn't helped. "Once we reach Palembang we will have a couple of days in which to train for our event at the Asian Games and once that is over, we will probably get another couple of days to train in Korea. That's not ideal, especially when you are going to compete against Europeans who can directly take part in Korea," he says.
'The new generation is very confident' - Bindra
2008 Oympic Gold Medallist Abhinav Bindra is all praise for the new generation of shooters in the country.
While this could definitely be a stumbling block, the veterans from Incheon remain optimistic. "Compared to the shooter I was four years ago, even I have improved by 50 percent. Compared to the team we had in 2014, this is a much stronger team.," says Ravi Kumar.
While remaining aware of the challenge the squad faces, Bindra agrees with that assessment. "I think that (the World championships) is going to be a very important competition for us. It will be challenging for the athletes, because they have two major events in a span of a couple of weeks. But I am sure they are up for the task. The new generation of athletes, the younger athletes are so confident. They know that they are going to make it. It's not my generation," he says.