India finally got their elusive gold medal at the ISSF World Cup in Osijek on Monday, courtesy Rahi Sarnobat in the women's 25m pistol, but it is likely the country's coaches would be more interested in understanding what the results in Croatia might mean for another medal tally a few weeks into the future.
The Osijek World Cup is the last high-level competition for Indian shooters before the Olympics, and while the Chinese and Koreans decided to skip the event, nearly every other powerhouse of the shooting world has taken part. While the results would have given a boost of confidence to a few prospects for Tokyo, for others - such as the air rifle contingent there will likely be some thinking in order.
Rahi Sarnobat's qualification high
Rahi Sarnobat will be going to her second Olympic Games in arguably the form of her life -- she has now won a silver and gold medal in consecutive ISSF World Cups in the 25m pistol event.
She hadn't been too excited about the first -- a silver in New Delhi in March this year -- owing to the fact that her qualification score (581) was not particularly high and would have been unlikely to see her make the final of the Olympics. Rio's cutoff had been 582. It would also not have make the cut at any other World Cup in the 2019 or 2021 season. In Osijek she shot a career high 591 in qualifying - five points more than her previous best at a world cup.
This is important because although her finals performance in Osijek was a standout (her score of 39 is just one short of the world record), her weakness has always been qualifying. Off the 7 times she's made the final at a world cup, she's medalled in 5 instances, but she's fallen short in qualifying on 22 other occasions.
Pistol shooters steady
Although he shot his joint lowest score in qualifying at the senior international level, pistol shooter Saurabh Chaudhary gave testament to why he's considered the strongest individual prospect in the Indian shooting contingent at the Tokyo Games.
While qualification scores were on the lower side in Osijek, Chaudhary was on the verge of falling short of those reduced numbers too but pulled himself back into contention with consecutive series of 98 in his fourth and fifth series. In the final Chaudhary kept his record of never finishing off the podium at a World Cup intact. Although the remaining Indian pistol shooters failed to finish with a medal, what was encouraging was the fact that all of them - Abhishek Verma, Manu Bhaker and Yashaswini Deswal -- made the finals.
Manu Bhaker in the mix
Owing to her early exploits at the World Cup level and the Commonwealth Games, Manu Bhaker is one of the marquee names in the Indian shooting contingent. It's a fact, though, that that Bhaker hasn't been nearly as consistent as her coaches would hope.
In the 10m air pistol event, she's placed on the podium on just two out of seven World Cups. In the 25m pistol event, her record is one medal (a bronze in a depleted field in New Delhi this year) out of 5 appearances. However while the results might not be falling into place just yet, Bhaker is consistently making finals - she made the finals in both the 10m pistol and 25m pistol events at Osijek.
Bhaker, and India's, best bet for a medal in Tokyo will however be in the 10m pistol mixed team event. Every one of the last five World Cup gold medals in the event had gone to the pairing of Bhaker and Chaudhary. Although the pair were beaten 16-14 to a silver medal in Osijek, that they finished on the podium yet again suggests they are still favourites to medal in Tokyo.
Dark horse Tomar
Aishwary Pratap Tomar won a gold medal in the 50m 3 position event at the New Delhi World Cup but his victory was clouded by the fact that he had owed his appearance in the final to a depleted field. Tomar's qualification score of 1165 would not have made any other World Cup in the preceding seasons. Although Tomar will not return with any medal from Osijek, his making the final with a qualification score of 1176 was reward enough.
That qualification mark would almost certainly place the 20-year-old in line for qualification at the Olympics (For perspective, the cutoff for the final in Rio was 1174).
Rifle shooters show indifferent form
While Tomar's result was heartening, a worry for India's shooting contingent would be the form of their air rifle contingent.
In the individual category just one shooter -Tomar, who isn't even representing India in the 10m air rifle event -- made the final. Divyansh Panwar who had won three world cup gold medals prior to Osijek shot a dismal 624.7 - his lowest score in senior international competition. Deepak Kumar who was named India's other representative in the 10m air rifle event in Tokyo, was only marginally better with a score of 626.0.
The women fared badly too. Anjum Moudgil (622.3) and Apurvi Chandela (624.2) have been facing kit issues since the New Delhi World Cup and are currently shooting a long way off their peak. What must be particularly worrying is the form of 21-year-old Elavenil Valarivan who was given Anjum Moudgil's quota in the 10m air rifle event based on her consistent high scores over the past couple of years.
In Osijek Valarivan shot just 621.2 - easily the worst score of her career. Valarivan had struggled at her last World Cup in New Delhi as well, shooting 626.7. What is particularly perplexing is that that just a few weeks before Osijek, Valarivan had shot a high quality 630.4 in the MQS category of the European Championships.
Valarivan found some form in the mixed team event from but was let down by her partner Panwar - whose low scores in the individual category chased him into the pairs event. The result in the mixed team would be particularly worrying for coaches. With four gold medals out of the five on offer at World Cups prior to Osijek, India would have counted the mixed team event as one of their strongest medal prospects in Tokyo. But as their pairs team faltered in Croatia, the team might have to do a rethink.