Gurbaj Singh: A misunderstood genius

The talented midfielder is hopeful of using the Hockey India League platform to fight his way back into the national side.

It is to Gurbaj's supreme mental strength, backed by his exceptional talent and physical fitness, that he made a comeback to the national side after two years in wilderness following the London Olympic.

Gurbaj Singh is controversy’s favourite child. But controversy is something that the former India hockey player dislikes, and he has had little or no role to play in the disputes that have been linked to him.

Gurbaj’s induction into the national team, at the age of 18, for the 2006 Asian Games was nothing short of a trial by fire. He had come in as a replacement for the experienced and widely popular Viren Rasquinha, who retired subsequently. Since then, Gurbaj has repeatedly been tested, trialled and declared guilty of things, the lanky midfielder insists, he wasn’t even aware of. However, each time, he came out of these testing times stronger and more determined to prove himself.

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“I don’t know why it all happens with me. I didn’t plan my selection in 2006. I was not the only one to be below-par or disappointed with the performance in 2012 (Olympics). I was cracking jokes with other players after training in 2015 when the indiscipline issue came up again. No team-mate of mine has ever said I misbehaved with them. Still, it all comes back to me,” shrugs Gurbaj, as he sits down for a tete-a-tete with Sportstar.

It was Gurbaj’s fitness that helped him make his debut for India in 2006, at the Asian Games. And, once again, it is his fitness that makes people shake their heads in wonder. “Even today, when I make the players here do the sprints before or after a match, he is the fastest and often the only one to reach the last level. Even the big foreign names wonder at his stamina. Not many can match him,” says Harendra Singh, the coach of Ranchi Rays in the Hockey India League (HIL).

It isn't common for a teenager to make his international debut at a major outing like the Asian Games. It was Gurbaj's fitness that clinched the deal back then. It is his fitness again, now, that makes people in hockey circles shake their head in wonder.

Ranchi Rays had picked up Gurbaj for $99,000 at the HIL auction last year after a bidding war that made him the highest-paid Indian. It also brought him back into the spotlight after he was away from the game for more than a year, thanks to the ‘indiscipline issue’ that Gurbaj speaks of.

Gurbaj had been banned for nine months following an adverse report filed by the outgoing assistant coach Jude Felix after the Hockey World League semifinals in Antwerp. He went to court and got the decision overturned. He was selected to the Indian team for the SAF Games last year, but despite being the most experienced he was not named captain. However, for Gurbaj none of what happened mattered.

“Whatever controversy happened last time, I tried to keep it completely away from my game. I did not allow any of it to interfere or affect my hockey. I simply put them in separate compartments. I have worked hard, I have been playing for almost 20 years now and there was no way I could have allowed anything, including the controversies that are just a small part of my life, to make me leave or affect something that has been my whole life. I did not want to waste my hard work of 20 years, so I just kept everything aside, practised hockey, played for my employers and the state and gave my best everywhere,” Gurbaj says.

It isn’t easy, this compartmentalisation. Poor form or even the lack of talent can be overlooked, but in Indian sports, the tag of being undisciplined is not easy to shake off. It is to Gurbaj’s supreme mental strength, backed by his exceptional talent and physical fitness, that he made a comeback to the national side after two years in the wilderness following the London Olympics and looked as if he had never been away. He believes he can do it again, and do it for at least 4-5 years more.

“As a kid, my only dream was to play hockey — play as long as I can, play with passion and love, play for the national team. Play not just to keep my place in the Indian team but to win something for India, to win a medal, raise the game’s profile. When I first made my comeback, all I wanted was to give my best. That’s all I dream of even now — whenever I get a chance to come back to the national side, and that’s up to the coach and the selectors — to give my 100 percent and be at a level that helps the team do better,” Gurbaj says.

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One of the charges repeatedly hurled at him to reinforce the accusations of insubordination is his stubborn refusal to move out of the right-half position, which is seemingly at odds with the modern concept of ‘total hockey’.

“That’s not true. I have played in the defence whenever a coach wanted me to (he did it while playing for Punjab in the Nationals last year, when he told this correspondent that a captain’s armband was not just a privilege but also a responsibility). Paul van Ass played me as a forward, a right linkman at the Azlan Shah and during the series against Japan and Belgium,” Gubraj points out.

But he admits it is also to do with what is best for the team. “Not just in sports, everyone has some area of specialisation where he has worked hard for many years and tried to perfect that role. As a right half my role is to defend and also support the attack, and I have worked on it. I have trained in this position for years. How to and how much to move up and down, the kind of fitness required for it, my positioning sense, so that it helps the team.

“Coaches need to decide where a player is the most effective and the best asset for a team. If I am asked to play on the left only because someone wants (me to) and I cannot do my best, then I am spoiling not just my own game but also the team’s chances. Hockey is a team game and every player has to be used where he can be the best for the team,” Gurbaj explains.

Shy and an introvert by nature, Gurbaj doesn’t open up easily. He hardly attends press conferences and doesn’t bother to give interviews. He prefers to be misunderstood than make any effort to explain himself. Gurbaj says that he is the same in the team as well, sticking to his training schedules and being with a couple of close friends in free time. It is also one of the reasons why he is seen as an arrogant and one of the most media-unfriendly persons around. However, when he speaks, he does it from the heart.

The 2017 HIL has been the perfect platform for the 28-year-old to display what he is capable of. With almost all the best players in world hockey plying their trade here, Gurbaj has showed what the Indian team has been missing in his absence. His runs down the right are a delight, as Gurbaj continues to hold the opposition in awe with well-directed passes. He dodges past his markers — there are at least two players marking him all the time — like they don’t even exist, and his ball control and retrieving ability frustrates rival coaches.

“I missed out last season but I closely watched all the games. I also followed all the international matches of all teams and kept adding anything new that I saw to my training. It’s very different at the top and the HIL is like any top-level international tournament. Playing with and against the best here, maza aa raha hai (it’s fun),” Gurbaj says.

He is also thankful to his franchise for reposing its faith in him. “Ranchi had seen my game in the last one year even though I was not in the national side and bet on me, it’s now my responsibility to repay them. They expect me to do well and I have to help the team win. The auctions and the price (they paid for me) only made me more focussed on proving my worth. Also, my career at every level, for a large part, has been under coach Harendra and there is an innate trust between us, on and off the field. The competition level is very high and it is tough to prove yourself here. I am hopeful it (my effort) will be recognised,” Gurbaj says, perhaps thinking of the India jersey hanging in his home in Jalandhar which he acknowledges is the only other precious thing for him after his stick.

If his form in the HIL is any indication, Gurbaj should soon be wearing that jersey again.

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