KOLKATA: World Cup-winning hockey legend Ashok Kumar on Wednesday said it would be difficult for the Indian men's team to keep up the momentum that seemed good enough for a long-awaited Olympic podium finish had the Games been held as scheduled this year.
A key member of the 1975 world champion team and a bronze-medallist at the Munich Olympics can't help but wonder whether the Manpreet Singh-led team would shape up as nicely next year, as it did this year after a stellar 2019.
"If the Olympics were held this year, we definitely had some chance. 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.
"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." In fact, Kumar feels that coach Graham Reid will also be a bit circumspect due to the forced break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"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 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.
The 70-year-old further said the women's team was 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 the 5-1 win over the USA in the first leg Olympic Qualifier.
The men's team will have a packed calendar when it resumes as it is slated to play in the Asian Champions Trophy in November before a tour to Malaysia followed by a Four-Nation tournament in New Zealand early next year.
The team 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.
"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 mesmerised the Kolkata public with his artistry in the early '70s, is still enamoured by the '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.