The Indian hockey annual festival kick-started on Saturday, 21st of January 2017 with Dabbang Mumbai facing the Ranchi Rays in the Hockey India League (HIL) in Mumbai. It also marked the return of one man who made headlines in the HIL auction, Gurbaj Singh.
A series of events made all the franchises go for him and believe in the player who was quarantined from the national team due to indiscipline and groupism allegations, a while back. Here is a look at his comeback journey.
The off-field battle
An exciting career was cut short temporarily as assistant coach Jude Felix blamed the right-half for indiscipline in the World League semi-finals in a report submitted to Hockey India in August 2015.
Gurbaj was confident that his case had no merit and he took on the might of the Federation. He had the backing of his teammates who also felt that he had not indulged in any wrongdoing. The righteous urge to fight for himself led him to approach the Indian judiciary with his case.
The star midfielder was fighting it out not just on the field, but off it as well. He won the case and overturned the nine-month ban. His case helped reinstate the belief in every sportsman and fan that justice shall be eventually served. It is sad that a player had to resort to such means rather than spending time on the field and winning multiple trophies and championships for the country.
But this lonely battle toughened him even more. He would have realised who his real well-wishers are and the subsequent court victory would have been memorable given the perseverance he put in to fight for himself.
Moreover, during this rugged phase, the Punjab Sports Department also recommended the veteran’s name for the coveted Arjuna Award.
The South Asian Games in India
Singh returned to the Indian men’s hockey team for the 12th South Asian Games held in Shillong and Guwahati early in 2016. He was the most experienced campaigner for India in the squad that was led by Mandeep Antil and coached by BJ Kariappa.
The relatively experimental side eventually lost to Pakistan in the finals. Nonetheless, their performances especially, that of Gurbaj were encouraging. However, the Indian team management decided against selecting him for future tournaments, and with it, his last hopes of playing in the Olympics came crashing down.
Rio Hopes dashed!
It is a difficult pill to swallow, not to be able to play at the Olympics, the premier event of Field Hockey. More so, given the fact that he is arguably the best right-half India has produced in the last decade. The dynamic right-half came to terms of missing the Rio Olympics, not because of an injury but politics. He had high hopes after a disappointing 2012 London Olympics campaign where India grabbed the wooden spoon.
“I wanted to be a hockey player because I desired not just to be an Olympic participant but win an Olympic medal for the country. I had played in the 2012 London Olympics, but our team finished last – so that is hardly a memory to cherish.” ~ Gurbaj on what hockey and Olympics mean to him.
However, he was following India’s matches closely and wanted the team to go for a podium finish.
“I was abroad, and so missed the first game against Ireland. I saw the Germany match – I thought our team played well as a unit until that late goal did us in. It doesn’t matter whether I’m on the team or not – they are all my team members, and I want them to make the country proud by winning a medal in Rio.” ~ Gurbaj Singh on India’s campaign at the Rio Olympics, 2016.
Going the foreign club route
The comeback of a forgotten player, especially an Indian athlete be it cricket, or hockey always begins from abroad. After all, when one is neglected by his own, only outsiders see the talent in a player moving away from petty politics. In a bid to keep himself primed for any consideration for the Indian berth, the midfield maestro joined the Malaysian Hockey League’s Premier Division side Sapura HC. He scored in both legs of the semifinals against Maybank, but his team couldn’t overcome the Terengganu Hockey Team in TNB Cup losing by three goals to nil. It should also be noted that his side Sapura had also finished second in the points standings of the Malaysian Hockey League’s Premier Division. Certainly, Gurbaj’s scintillating performances in the Malaysian Hockey League set the eyeballs rolling, and it didn’t take long for him to be in the core probables.
Singh also captained Punjab despite being out of the national side in the 6th Senior National Men Hockey Championship (A Division) organised by Hockey India in Safari. Playing in Pool C, his team notched up four consecutive victories, the last one being a 7-0 thumping of Jharkhand to march into the semifinals.
The big fish!
Come November, came the big news with the HIL auctions. The 28-year-old is not only the costliest Indian buy but also the most expensive player in this year’s auction, beating his Ranchi Rays teammate and German young & sensational forward Christopher Ruhr. Ruhr was the costliest international buy this season with an amount of $75,000 compared to $99,000 of Gurbaj. Interestingly, the ace midfielder will now earn more than all India players in HIL!
The bid amount is not that important for the veteran, but the feeling of being accepted in the hockey setup is. Finally, talent has won over politics which gives a positive outlook towards Indian sports going forward.
“Even if someone had taken me at my base price, I still would have played my best in the league. For players like me, it’s the performance that counts.”
His support system
In his subsequent court battle for a final redemption when Batra was at the helm of Hockey India (HI), he relied on the support of his wellwishers and has a word of thanks for each one of them.
“Of course, my family and my girlfriend always supported me in those uncertain times. Besides, I kept playing for my employers and even went to play in Malaysia’s hockey league for Sapura FC. These stints helped me maintain my fitness and keep my focus. 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,” says the tough Punjab Police Deputy Superintendent of Police.
The backing of the Coach, Harendra Singh!
Fresh and buoyant after the world cup win, the junior men’s coach Harendra is now in charge of Ranchi Rays. He is not worried about the undisciplined track record that Gurbaj carries.
If that was the case, why should we bid so high? I have been coaching now for more than 15 years, and I know how to manage players.”- Harendra said about his star player
But there is an under-story to this. It was Harendra who first spotted Gurbaj at the Ramesh Chand Academy when the right-half was just 13 and a half years old.
His tackling and dribble skills reminded Harendra of another stalwart of the game – Pargat Singh. It takes just a moment for the experienced eyes to realize how big a player he would become and under his guidance the midfielder is bound to grow even further.
Also the fact that Mr Narendra Batra has left the reigns of Hockey India to become the President of FIH which has all but made this comeback and subsequent transition much easier.
What he brings to the table!
The 28-year-old veteran dominates terms on the field with steady play, coupled with a calm head and not to forget his exquisite skills. He exploits the right channel making darting runs to feed the forwards by switching play to move the ball from right to left. He is equally good as a defender and initiates counter attacks. He has been made to play in multiple positions by different coaches in his 200+ matches for the senior team.
He is rated highly by his peers who think that he is very approachable. Terry Walsh, the former Indian coach of the 2014 World Cup and the Asian Games, calls Gurbaj’s right to left drag as mesmerising. He is one who has always shown great quality.
Fit and ready
The ace midfielder is supremely fit, and his know-how of the game makes him a strong candidate despite being close to the 30’s. As the HIL anthem song goes “India mein khelegi duniya” (The world will play in India) but, there would be one Indian to watch out for!
Gurbaj’s fight and redemption teach us that passion, skill and willpower never get neglected and ultimately win both hearts and matches! He is humming to the tunes of …
Apni toh Pathshala … Na Koi roknewaala – Be A Rebel!
(Our school ethics … No one is stopping me, Be a Rebel)
using the HIL 2017 as a catapult to make his way back into the national setup!