KARACHI: Sohail Abbas’ long wait is finally over. The seasoned defender, arguably the most popular hockey player of his generation, was finally handed Pakistan team captaincy for back-to-back tours of Malaysia and Europe.
Unless some major catastrophe occurs during May-June when Pakistan will feature in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh (Malaysia) and play Test matches in Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, Sohail seems set to also lead Pakistan at the 2012 London Olympics which explodes into action from July 27.
Sohail, 35, is easily one of Pakistan’s most accomplished hockey players in the last couple of decades. The Greenshirts rely on his goal-scoring abilities with a trademark drag flick off short corners. But when it came to captaincy, Pakistani hockey authorities never thought he was the right choice even though traditionally the team’s senior most players automatically gets the captaincy arm-band.
The Karachi-based star, who began his international career in 1998, has been the team’s senior most player for quite some time, but it was only after the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF)ran out of all other options that Sohail was finally made captain of an 18-man squad that was named by the national selectors following one-day trials on Sunday.
Sohail, who will turn 35 next month, holds the record for scoring the highest number of goals in international hockey. He is also one of the most capped players in Pakistan’s hockey history.
“Sohail is one of our key players and his experience makes him even more important,” said Khawaja Junaid, Pakistan’s coach. “We are confident that he will inspire the boys to give their best in the forthcoming matches,” added Junaid, a former Olympian.
Sohail’s biggest rival for the job was young striker Waqas Sharif. After ruling Waqas too young to lead the team, PHF decided to appoint him as Sohail’s deputy.
The biggest reason why Sohail was made captain was the fact that mercurial striker Shakeel Abbasi remains on the PHF blacklist after defecting to the rebel World Series Hockey (WSH).
Abbasi was tipped to become Pakistan captain early this year after PHF sacked former skipper Muhammad Imran because of poor form. But Abbasi fell out with PHF chiefs after he accepted a lucrative offer to feature in the unsanctioned WSH in spite of clear warnings by top officials, especially PHF secretary Asif Bajwa.
Abbasi and several other ‘rebels’ including another former captain Rehan Butt appeared before a PHF disciplinary last week in a bid to avoid a ban and get a green signal to play for Pakistan. Some of them were hoping that the PHF will recall them for national duty but all of them were snubbed on Sunday.
“We didn’t even consider them because PHF is yet to clear those players for national duty,” said Hanif Khan, the chief selector.
“Once their case is decided by the (PHF) disciplinary committee then we will see whether they can be recalled or not,” he added.
Meanwhile, youngster Khalid Bhatti was the only new face in the 18-man squad for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup to be played from May 24-June 3.
Pakistan will fly out for Malaysia on May 18 and begin their title campaign in Ipoh with a tough opening game against Argentina. They will meet old rivals India in a mouth-watering encounter on May 31.
Pakistan will return home on June 4 and after a brief rest will leave for Europe on June 8 to play matches against Belgium (June 11) against Germany (June 13 and 14) and against Holland (June 15).
Pakistan squad: Goalkeepers: Imran Butt and Imran Shah. Defenders: Mohammad Irfan, Kashif Shah, Khalid Bhatti. Midfielders: Sohail Abbas (captain), Fareed Ahmed, Rashid Mehmood, Mohammad Tauseeq, Mohammad Rizwan Junior. Forwards: Waqas Sharif (vice-captain), Shafqat Rasool, Abdul Haseem Khan, Rizwan Senior, Mohammad Zubair, Umer Bhutta, Shabbir Ahmed, Ali Shaan.