CHENNAI: Around the mid-noughties, a twinkle-heeled youngster was being raved about as the brightest young talent, alongside Sardar Singh. The teenager from Firozepur hadn’t the artistry or dribbling skills that generally appeased the connoisseurs, but he warranted attention with speed, strength and doggedness.
From a country fixated with flair and flamboyance, he was a rare firefighter, a reason foreign coaches found him extremely likable.
But almost a decade since his debut, Gurbaj Singh remains an enfant terrible of Indian hockey. Not that his game flat-lined or his work ethics diluted — even during his resurgence under Terry Walsh his work rate and utility were second to none. But his propensity to pick fights with teammates and support staff was to be the fatal flaw of his start-stop career. The latest charges against him — making divisions in the team — would most likely see him out of the Rio Olympics, though his nine-month ban ends by then.
Whether he makes it to the Olympic squad or not, the Indian think tank is fretting over a like-for-like replacement for the right half, from whom originated most of India’s attacks through the right flank. His telepathic coordination with Dharmvir Singh and SV Sunil underscored India’s Asian Games triumph. Admitted skipper Sardar: “No doubt, he has been a terrific player, but we have to move on and find replacements. To be among the top teams in the world, we should have the depth to replace any player and we have a few youngsters coming through.”
India deputised Jasjit Singh and Gurjinder Singh with this task during the trip to Spain and France in July. “They did a fine job, but are still young and should be given time to develop. They will need some more time to settle down and build coordination. But both are very receptive and hard-working players, and in long term can emerge as reliable players,” he opined.
Fullback VR Raghunath and centre half Chinglensana Singh, too, have played as right halves in the past, but only in crisis. But it’s unlikely either of them will be asked to play out of their respective positions. “When a situation arises, anybody can play anywhere. But we prefer specialists for every spot, and we worked really hard on that front in the preparatory camp,” asserted Sardar.
Another emphasis in the camp was devising means to counter the Black Sticks’ short-pass-centric game. “We are familiar with their game, and we played them recently in the Sultan Azlan Shah. Though we lost, we played reasonably well. Also, many of them play in the Hockey India League. We have set a few plans and are hopeful of positive results. Last year, we beat Australia at home,” he said.
Meanwhile, former South Africa goalkeeper had a few sessions with goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and Harjot Singh. “He basically focused on the basics, like you feet movement, hand-eye coordination and positioning. He told me basically to keep up the good work and be not worried about the occasional bad games,” said Sreejesh.
Starting from October 2, India will play six games, two against the New Zealand A team and four versus the national team, which is ranked seventh in the world, a rung above India.