World champion and Olympic medallist Ashok Kumar feels that Indian men's hockey team lead by Manpreet Singh were in contention for a podium finish had Tokyo Olympics not been postponed by a year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
The key member of the 1975 World Champion Indian team and a bronze medallist at the Munich Olympics is apprehensive as to how the team would shape up next year, needing to regain the momentum.
"If the Olympics were held this year, we definitely had some chances. We had shown improvement and we could have got some good results there," Kumar, who scored the winning goal against Pakistan in the 1975 World Cup final, told PTI in an exclusive interview.
In fact, Kumar feels that coach Graham Reid will also be a bit circumspect due to this prolonged forced break.
"Even (head coach) Graham Reid will have a big question mark going on his head now. Coaching is going on inside closed doors. Unless you see them in real matches, how will you assess... He's not a machine."
India's best show in 2019 came against world's top ranked team Belgium, beating a full strength side 2-1 in a Pro League encounter. India also had a commendable 2-2 draw against the formidable Australia in their final Pro League game before world came to a standstill due to the pandemic.
"Definitely, there is a break in momentum and it will really make a big difference. You can't say now (that we will win medal). We will talk about it next year seeing how they perform in the build up to the Olympics."
The 70-year-old further said the women's team were also in great shape and would have done well had the Olympics been held this year.
"Even our women's team were in the peak of their form and they too had bright chances but now we never know. We will talk about the Olympics only next year," he said, remembering their 5-1 thumping win over the USA in the first leg Olympic Qualifier.
The men's team will have a packed calendar when they resume post pandemic as they are slated to play in the Asian Champions Trophy in November before their tour to Malaysia and then a Four-Nation tournament in New Zealand early next year.
They will then resume the Pro League against Argentina with back-to-back matches till end of May in the build up to Tokyo 2021.
India, who lost to Belgium Rio 2016 quarterfinals, have not won an Olympic medal since Moscow 1980 where they won a gold medal and since then their form slipped.
"It depends how they regroup and how they keep the spirit high. They have to stay motivated, it's purely an individual thing," the star dribbler of yesteryears said.
Kumar however believed that India have improved a lot in the recent past by bolstering their defence.
"We have a balanced squad at the moment. We have plugged the hole of leaking goals at the last minute. Our defence is much better now."
"We have some good drag-flickers in Rupinder Pal Singh and Simarnjeet Singh. The forwards just need to combine a bit more and show ball anticipation."
Kumar, who was a Mohun Bagan legend having mesmerized the Kolkata public with his artistry in the early 70's, is still enamoured by 'City of Joy'.
"I was so thrilled that I left my B Com exams midway to play alongside the legends of the country in Mohun Bagan.
There were greats like Shahid Noor, Inam-ur Rahman, Gurbux Singh and Vece Paes who were playing for Mohun Bagan then. It's a decision I won't regret," he recalled.
From 1969, Ashok Kumar played for three seasons at Mohun Bagan, a golden era during which they won the first division hockey league four times in a row, besides winning the coveted Beighton Cup twice.
"They (Mohun Bagan) were highly impressed by my skills at the University games and had sent me an offer letter.
"I made my national debut from Mohun Bagan and went on to represent the country at the Olympics. I will always cherish this award as Mohun Bagan is like my second home," he signed off.