Rejected by the establishment, labelled undisciplined, forced to go to court to be able to play for the country, winning the case yet not finding a spot on the national team – Gurbaj Singh had almost become a pariah. Till, on Wednesday, in the closed bid of the Hockey India League, former HIL champions, Ranchi Rays, bid and won Gurbaj for an astonishing $99,000. The player’s base price was $17,000. It wasn’t the bid amount that was stupefying; that he was still in the race must have amazed Gurbaj himself.
“I got a phone call from a friend saying that my bid price was the highest in the auction,” says Gurbaj, “At first, I didn’t believe him. I knew I would find a place or my present team Delhi would pick me, but to become the most expensive player in the HIL was a sort of vindication.”
The nightmare began at Antwerp during the World League semifinals. India had qualified for the finals in Raipur and it seemed that Gurbaj was on his way to playing his second consecutive Olympic Games. But news broke that the coach’s report had blamed him for indiscipline. He had taken on the coaching staff and a trigger happy Hockey India banned him for creating disharmony within the national team.
In fact, during the 2012 London Olympics, the then coach Michael Nobbs had reported that Gurbaj has a tendency of taking on the coaches. Insiders and his friends in the team defend him saying, ‘Gurbaj questions tactics which a few coaches take as indiscipline.’ After Antwerp, reports did mention that the former Indian captain and assistant coach at Antwerp, Jude Felix, had written the adverse brief. “I didn’t do anything of that sort. I respect all coaches. But if there was indiscipline against me, why didn’t Jude point out the indiscipline?” asked Gurbaj.
Gurbaj went to court and won the case against Hockey India. To HI’s credit, he was selected and made captain for the Indian team to the SAF Games where the team won silver. Then he was dropped.
Gurbaj Singh was not good enough to make it to the top 33 players in the country. And now a team picks him up for $99,000!
Harendra Singh, the Ranchi Rays coach, is delighted to get Gurbaj. “In fact, before the bidding began, we only wanted him,” says the current Junior India coach. “In our defensive structure, he fits in beautifully. We had decided to go all out to get him and we have the best right-half in the country.”
With Manpreet Singh, Ashley Jackson, Gurbaj Singh in the midfield and Birendra Lakra and Kothajit in the defence, Ranchi Rays seem well stocked up at the back and skillful enough to launch breathtaking counter-attacks.
Gurbaj was part of the national team that team won gold at the 2007 Champions Trophy and then picked up silver medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, apart from representing India at the 2014 World Cup in Holland and the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, where India won gold to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Does this fuel any aspirations in him now? “I am convinced that any selection is not in my hands,” Gurbaz explains. “My job is to play and I am glad that I am getting a chance to do that.”
For Gurbaj, it’s not the bid amount that is important. “Even if someone had taken me at my base price, I still would have played my best in the league,” he clarifies. “For players like me, it’s the performance that counts. I play for my fans that have supported me in the most difficult of times and my friends who have always advised me to keep playing and never to give up. If we take this as a vindication, it’s a victory for them.”
Harendra is not worried about the ‘disciplinary’ issues that follow Gurbaj. “If that was the case, why should we bid so high,” asks Harendra, “I have been coaching now for more than 15 years and I know how to manage players.”
Not many know this, but it was Harendra who saw Gurbaj for the first time when the player, now 28, was 13 years and six months old. “He was at the Ramesh Chand Academy and I was highly impressed by his tackling and dribble,” says Harendra. “He had the same skills as Pargat Singh; the same dodge and I knew he would be a big player.”
Gurbaj’s game is heady, dominant and laced with exquisite skills. His runs down the right flank where he swishes the ball from the right to the left, creates gaps that are easy to exploit by the forwards upfront. As a defender, he picks out the ball right off the forwards stick; it is at that moment he is most dangerous with his forward moves. Terry Walsh, India’s coach at the 2014 World Cup and the Asian Games, says Gurbaj is a very approachable player. Speaking on what people call ‘indiscipline’, Terry addresses it as ‘views’. “He has views about the game which is exactly what you want from a player.” The former Aussie legend, now director of Hockey Malaysia, says it’s an injustice to the national team that Gurbaj sits on the sidelines. “I played him and he showed great quality.”
Terry called Gurbaj’s right to left drag as ‘mesmerising’ and said that it is up to the player to fight what are adverse circumstances and keep believing in your talent. “Exactly,” says Harendra. “I won’t comment on whether he should be in the national team or not. That is up to the selection committee and every coach has his own structure to play with. But, yes, he is in my HIL team and we all at Ranchi Rays are very excited about having Gurbaj.”
The last few years have made Gurbaj a realist. The Deputy Superintendent of Police almost flirts with his own brand of philosophy. “What’s gone is over,” he says, in a deadpan, matter of fact voice. “I stopped thinking about all this a long time back. I decided to keep things on the side and take a step forward. We all need to face what’s in front and keep going on. I love hockey and that’s all I understand.”
Sometimes, in a player’s life, it’s not always skills that pay off; to be able to get up when down, to hang in there are rare qualities. It’s that spirited, indomitable, part of his character which may define the next phase of Gurbaj’s career.