KOLLAM: Before Sardar Singh became the redoubtable spearhead of Team India, there was Rajpal Singh, endowed with all the Oriental charm and stick-work associated with the sub-continental brand of the game. For a decade or so, he was India’s trusted creative force, furnishing them with mesmerising goals and memorable triumphs.
Rajpal is not old enough to be out of national reckoning. At 32, he is still quite fit, and more importantly, hasn’t lost the skillset to make a difference. The sumptuous feigns, the flowing beard, the quick-silver heels and the pitter-patter sprint — in his prime he was the fastest runner in the squad, with and without the ball — are all in place. The finesse, though, has arguably waned. He asserts he still has the drive to represent the country. “I still believe I’m good enough to be in the team. Both physically and mentally I’m strong enough,” he says.
But let alone the national team, the former India skipper is no longer sought-after even in the Hockey India League. Until last year, he was part of Delhi Waveriders, though he couldn’t make an impact and mostly warmed the benches.
And this year, he was off-loaded and had no takers in the auction. “I had an ordinary season, and apart from a good match against Mumbai in which I scored two goals, I didn’t make much of an impact,” he concurs.
He has moved on in life, not exactly content with how he has been treated but still fiercely proud of his achievements and warm with memories of his colourful heyday. “Growing up in my village, the only ambition was to play for the country, which I went on to fulfil. What’s more, I had the opportunity to lead the country in big events like the World Cup (2010) and the Commonwealth Games (2010). I’ve contributed to the team’s victories. In the end that is what matters most,” he reflects.
Still, there lingers a strain of underachievement, maybe artists in sports are consigned to be flawed or viewed through lens’ petulant. But Rajpal was always an angry artist, soft-spoken to a fault off the field but strained with a volatile tempter on it, which recently manifested when he brandished the stick at the umpire for a contentious penalty corner.
In his prime, he miffed the powers-to-be when he demanded wage revision for the team after he skippered the team to triumph in the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy in 2011. He had also threatened to pull out of the team from the disastrous Olympic qualifiers in Santiago, apart from featuring in the rebel World Series Hockey league.
However, Rajpal has no regrets. “I’ve always stood for the team, and I’ll be like that till I retire. Whatever I’ve done is for the team, for its betterment. Self-respect is the most important thing for a human being,” he defends. The only debilitating regret remains the Santiago qualifiers. “That's one of the saddest days of my life. I feel ashamed to think of that day,” he confesses.