In a hockey set-up that fetishizes supple wrists and spellbinding skills over hard work and efficiency, it’s hardly surprising that Gurbaj Singh often gets overlooked. Twice in his stop-and-start career has the 26-year-old right-half been in the news. On both occasions, however, it hasn’t been for hockey reasons.
Last week, before he would tender his resignation, former assistant coach Jude Felix submitted a detailed complaint against Gurbaj in his report to Hockey India. He accused the veteran of 200 international games of groupism and creating disharmony within the team. He further alleged that Gurbaj did not cooperate with the coaches and was not a good ambassador for the national team.
Gurbaj, who made his debut at the 2006 Asian Games, is flummoxed, not knowing what he has done this time. The last time he found himself in a soup, he at least knew where he had erred. In 2012, Gurbaj was ‘suspended’ for refusing 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 a few stunning performances in the Hockey India League last year — and an apology to Hockey India — Gurbaj earned a lifeline. Former coach Terry Walsh brought him back into the national team’s fold by picking him for the World Cup. Since then, with his workmanlike approach, the Punjab Police DSP has turned from being an outcast into one of the key players of the team.
Walsh described him as a ‘outstanding player’ and said he had the potential to be best in the world if ‘he is in right frame of mind.’ Among the fittest players in the team, he along with Dharamvir Singh and SV Sunil made India’s right flank a real threat for the opponents, with majority of the moves being initiated from that side of the pitch.
However, he is often perceived to be arrogant because of his no-nonsense attitude. Among the most intelligent players in the team, he can execute the plans to perfection. But he can be temperamental. In Belgium at the World League semifinals last month, then coach Paul van Ass made him play as a right midfielder instead of his usual right-back position. Van Ass believed Gurbaj’s defence wasn’t strong enough at right-back but his attacking instincts would be useful in the midfield. In his report, Felix mentioned that ‘one could tell Gurbaj was not happy to play in that position’.
Gurbaj has been axed from the squad which is travelling to France and Spain for test series on disciplinary grounds.
“I do not know where I’ve gone wrong this time. I would like to sit face-to-face and clear out the issues,” Gurbaj says.
Coaches and players feel Gurbaj is indispensable to the team. Captain Sardar Singh, who according to Felix’s report had issue with Gurbaj’s foul language, said India cannot afford to leave Gurbaj out for a long time while coach Roelant Oltmans said the issue is a minor one. “I don’t think it’s that bad as it looks. Ultimately, it depends on him how he changes his attitude,” Oltmans said.