Target in sight, emerging star Saurabh Chaudhary is just getting started

Saurabh Chaudhary celebrates winning the 10m air pistol gold during the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi. PTI Photo/Arun Sharma

This was sometime in November last year. The year was winding down, tournaments had run dry and the bunch of junior shooters camping at the Karni Singh range in New Delhi were hurrying to head into a mini-break.

Not Saurabh Chaudhary, ESPN India's emerging sportsperson awardee for 2018.

The 16-year-old, who'd come off winning gold at the Asian Games, found himself standing in a half-circle alongside 30-odd fellow junior shooters outside the range under the afternoon sun. It was reprimand for one of the shooters, who'd playfully locked another out of his room. Left without their shooting equipment, many fidgeted while others gaily chatted to kill time.

Saurabh quietly walked up to the water-dispensing kiosk, re-filled his bottle, returned to his spot in the circle, and took his position just as he would in a shooting lane for a live fire - right arm outstretched, feet shoulder width apart and body aligned with the target. Only in this case, the target was imaginary and instead of a 4.5mm caliber air pistol, he was holding up his plastic water sipper.

He was practicing his hold - a useful drill for strengthening one's shooting arm and improving trigger control.

Saurabh had burst onto the scene in 2018.

In the eight-man final at the Asian Games, Saurabh was positioned in Lane B. In Lane A stood Jin Jong-Oh, a 38-year-old Korean veteran who'd picked up his fourth Olympic gold medal around the same time that Saurabh held a pistol for the first time ever. But the Indian teen was unflappable.

"That's the thing with these kids," says national junior rifle coach Deepali Deshpande, "They don't really think much about the field they're in or the legacy of the guys they're up against. It's just a simple repetition exercise for them in training and competitions - watch sights, press trigger."

So far, the approach is working well for their lot. Apart from the Asiad gold, Saurabh currently holds both the world junior (245.5, World Championships in Changwon) and senior world record (245.0, World Cup in New Delhi) in the 10m air pistol. The latter fetched the country a quota place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Before 2018, though, no one had heard of Saurabh.

It's not an anomaly in shooting.

At the same World Championships in Suhl, Germany, where Saurabh shot 243.7 in the final to set a world junior record (which he improved on in Changwon), 20-year-old Yashaswini Deswal did something similar in 2017. In her final year as a junior, she ruled the final with a consistent gap of 4.1 points, winning gold with a junior world record-equaling score of 235.9. Run a finger through her ISSF profile and there's just a lone international event, a World Championship appearance in Guadalajara, against her name in 2018. Now, she's slowly finding her feet in the senior group. It's not an isolated instance. Junior talents have sprung out of nowhere, shot record scores, won medals and then disappeared.

It's on this count that Saurabh has been a touch lucky -- his peak form coincided with an important competition calendar year. In that sense, his successes have been a lot more visible, so a vanishing act wouldn't go unnoticed either, unlike many others.

However, he's been able to carry forward his form this year. He began 2019 with a gold medal and world record-equaling qualification score of 778 in the mixed event paired alongside fellow teen Manu Bhaker at the World Cup in New Delhi in February. They breached world record qualification scores yet again at the Asian Airgun Championship in Taipei, this time going past the five-day-old mark set by Russians Vitalina Batsarashkina and Artem Chernousov at the European Championships with a score of 784.

"Saurabh is extremely talented. There's no doubt about it," says Deshpande, "But he's still a young boy who's slowly maturing, so the key will lie in how he handles the transition and the emotional, physical and mental changes that come with it. As their learning processes evolve with time, there are bound to be some drops and dips, so how they handle themselves in such phases will be crucial. "

The advantage that Saurabh and most shooters of his age enjoy right now, Deshpande explains, is the privilege of ignorance. "Right now he isn't thinking of whom he's competing against, there's no baggage of past scores and he isn't looking too far ahead either, unlike say an experienced shooter. It's just that shot, that round, that tournament. So their minds in that sense are blank. It's just focused on the target and the trigger, nothing else."

But the challenge that will present itself over time is replicating performance under different conditions. There's also the red flag of overtraining. "Ahead of the New Delhi World Cup, I remember Saurabh wanting to push himself so hard, training at the range for five hours and wanting to go back home and again go over some drills. That's something we just don't want any junior to do," adds Deshpande.

In keeping with his ambitious training hours, Saurabh has also got the shed in the backyard of his home in Kalina, Meerut converted into a makeshift range.

While talent isn't in short supply, attitude is what sets Saurabh apart. Whether an early morning training session or being asked to put his phone away, Saurabh is always ready for anything when it comes to shooting. "It's not performance, but temperament which marks him out for the future. We would have a clearer picture in two years. For now, I'd say let's not talk him up and declare that he's going to be greatest there ever will be. Let's just wait, watch and allow him to step up."