December 14, 2016 1:20:55 am
Jaspal Rana was India’s last hope at Doha, but that too was fading. “I was running a temperature of around 104 the night before my event,” he recalls. Till then at the 2006 Asian Games, none of the Indian shooters had managed a gold medal. And two days before the meet ended, only Rana’s 25 metre centre fire and standard pistol events were left.
It seemed almost certain that Rana would have to shoot while suffering a fever, the doctors had made it clear. But for national pistol coach Syed Wajid Ali.
“He was at my bedside, and he stayed up all night giving me the prescribed medicines every few hours. In the morning, he practically carried me down to the dining area for breakfast,” Rana says.
A few hours later, Rana was at the shooting range and the fever was subsiding. He shot scores worthy of two individual gold medals, a third in the centre fire pistol team event and a silver in the standard pistol team.
“Who stays awake all night to help someone get rid of a fever?” Rana asks.
Ten years later, a heart attack claimed the life of ‘Wajid Sahab’ at the Balewadi range in Pune where the Nationals are on, and most shooters stayed awake through the night, despite the 25 metre competitions starting early the following day. He was largely a range officer and referee, but had a deep grasp of the technical aspects of the sport. Though never the top coach, he was a technique tweaker for junior shooters who needed guidance.
“He was always available to young shooters who had no coaches, and he’d often guide them when he saw their technique needed changes,” explains Rahi Sarnobat. “Nothing big, just a few basic tips, but effective ones,” she adds.
Rana remembers seeing Ali at the Delhi shooting range before the marksman announced his name on the bigger stages of the sport. And Ali’s demeanour never changed as Rana progressed. Be it his quick wit, warm nature, a vast knowledge of weapons (he would often be approached for quick repairs), or his organisational skills, for years Ali was the go-to guy of the Indian camp.
“Rifle shooter, pistol shooter, shotgun, senior, junior, it didn’t matter. He was friendly and helpful to everyone, and everyone liked him,” Rana says.
Mention his name to any sport shooter, however, and the first thought that will come up is of Ali’s propensity to whip up a culinary masterpiece. Ronak Pandit remembers once casually mentioning the name of a prominent chain of restaurants in Delhi to Ali during a national camp.
“He told me ‘you get good food there, but not the best’,” recalls the 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medallist. “Later he brought a massive vessel with homemade gosht and biryani for us at the range. He was always ready to feed you and discuss food,” Pandit adds.
Rana claims to have learnt cooking because of Ali. During camps abroad, Ali would take Rana to malls to purchase ingredients, then head back to the rented apartment and get to work. “Fish, mutton, chicken, vegetables. He made all kinds of things for us,” Rana reminisces.
Then there was his vast knowledge of the sport and its rules. “He’d often write to the ISSF to tell them that their rules make no sense, and they’d value that feedback,” Rana asserts. Still, it is the friendship that had developed with the late 59-year-old referee, range officer and coach that made him most loved among the shooting elite.
At the ongoing shooting nationals in Pune, Ali was busy preparing the 25 metre range when his heart gave way. A moment’s silence will be in order, but still the athletes will have to muster up their game face to psyche themselves up before the match. 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Sarnobat is sure most in her group will line up. It’s what follows that scares her.
Over the years, Ali’s deep voice has given orders to the contestants to ‘load, unload, reload, shoot’ – the commands of the referee. It’s a distinct voice that they’d known to love. After all these years, that voice won’t boom inside the range.
“Tomorrow, someone unknown will give us those commands for the first time. Maybe that’s when it will sink in.”
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