The Hockey India League (HIL) franchise Ranchi Rays, co-owned by MS Dhoni and Sahara, splurged $99,000 (approx Rs 67 lakh) to sign Gurbaj Singh for the 2017 season. That made Gurbaj, axed from the national team because of disciplinary issues, the most expensive Indian in the HIL, surpassing striker Akashdeep Singh, who was bought by another Sahara-owned team Uttar Pradesh Wizards for $84,000 last year.
After he was suspended by Hockey India last year – and later omitted from this year’s HIL – many assumed it would be the end of Gurbaj’s stop-and-start career. Despite the setbacks, he waged on. But deep down even Gurbaj believed he was fighting a lost battle.
“I wasn’t expecting this, to be honest. I was hoping someone would just pick me because I haven’t played competitive hockey in a while and I am also not a part of the national team core group,” Gurbaj, whose base price was $17,500, said. “It was a tough period. But this is my opportunity to prove once again that I am just a regular player, not any problem child.”
Gurbaj does not dwell much on the highest-paid Indian tag. The league, he hopes, will act as a springboard for his return to the national team. He has done it once before.
In 2012, he was sidelined after he refused to play as a forward during a group stage match of the London Olympics. So incensed were then coach Michael Nobbs and Hockey India chief Narinder Batra that the national team doors were shut firmly on Gurbaj.
However, following some irresistible performances in the Hockey India League in 2014 — and an apology to Hockey India — Gurbaj earned a lifeline.
Former coach Terry Walsh brought him back into the national team fold by picking him for the World Cup. Since then, with his workmanlike approach, the Punjab Police DSP turned from being a pariah into one of the key players of the team.
The truce, however, didn’t last long. Soon after the World League semifinals in Holland last year, old allegations against Gurbaj resurfaced. Before he would tender his resignation, then India assistant coach Jude Felix submitted a detailed complaint against Gurbaj in his report to Hockey India.
He accused Gurbaj of ‘groupism and creating disharmony within the team’. It was further alleged that the veteran of more than 200 internationals did not ‘cooperate with the coaches and was not a good ambassador for the national team.’
This time, Hockey India decided to make an example of him by banning him for nine months, keeping him away from the Olympic-bound squad. It was later overturned following the intervention of the Punjab and Haryana high court.
But he was still not allowed to take part in this year’s HIL and wasn’t considered for the national team as well. The only time he wore national colours this year was at the South Asian Games, where he led a depleted Indian side to a silver medal finish.
Since then, however, he has completely been ignored, not even considered for the camp. “Physically, it’s not tough to stay in shape but psychologically it has affects you. I tried to focus on playing hockey, hoping that it would be rewarded some day,” he said.
In August. when rest of his ‘former’ teammates were at the Olympics, Gurbaj was in Kuala Lumpur, playing for a modest mid-table club Sapura in the Malaysian league.
“It was painful to miss the Olympics. But you have to face such situations in life. It has made me stronger,” he said. “I kept my focus on hockey and trained with the Punjab Police in Jalandhar. The two-month stint in Malaysia gave me some match practice.”
At Ranchi Rays, he will be reunited with Harendra Singh, who was his coach in the formative years. Harendra, who signed Gurbaj for Indian Airlines from a Jalandhar academy in early 2000s, said they were looking for a ‘defensively strong’ player on the right, and with Ajitesh Roy being the only other option for that position in the auction, they decided to go all out for Gurbaj.
For Gurbaj, though, the amount Ranchi shelled out will come as a reassuarance that the faith in his ability isn’t lost, despite the backlash he has faced for his behaviour.
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