Editor’s note: This article was published in the build-up to the FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup. Sharmila, who played in all six matches at HWC 2022, is also part of the India squad for the Commonwealth Games.
It was the fourth quarter and India were 3-0 up against USA in their final FIH Pro League match of the season. Victory seemed certain at that point but young Sharmila Devi, India’s speedy No 7, wasn’t done yet. She picked up the ball from deep in her own half, dribbled her way down the left flank and launched a powerful pass from distance into the circle for Sanigta Kumari to make it 4-0.
Her explosive speed and burst of energy makes Sharmila one of the most promising Indian players, and here she was, showing good end product to her game. The 20-year-old, who had a solid outing in the Asia Cup, featured in 11 of the 14 matches India played in the Pro League and her performances have been impressive enough to earn her a spot in the squad for the FIH Women’s World Cup.
Former India coach Sjoerd Marijne was on commentary duty for India’s matches against Belgium in Antwerp recently, and on air, he mentioned how he used to call Salima Tete, the Ferrari and Sharmila Devi, the Porsche of this Indian team for how they could glide across the turf.
Sharmila admits that this speed is something she possessed from the start of her journey in the sport, but working with the right trainers over the years has helped her harness her natural ability.
“Today’s hockey is all about speed,” Sharmila told Scroll.in. “Every player must have that along with stamina. You have to run hard for the entirety of those sixty minutes, so these things become most important.”
Born in Hisar, Harayana, Sharmila picked up the sport at a young age and received great support from her grandfather, who she says was a national level hockey player himself.
“My family supported me at every step of the way, they never hesitated in providing me everything I needed. My grandfather always wanted at least one of his kids to take up the sport. I was very mischievous as a kid so he thought it was best to push me towards playing hockey,” she said.
Sharmila spent the first few years enjoying the sport in her village. It was only after she took admission in an academy in Chandigarh that she started taking things more seriously and went on to play in the nationals.
“When I got selected for the junior national camp, I had this strong feeling that I don’t want to look back now,” she said.
Staying in Chandigarh though was not a part of the plan.
“Her grandfather was a former hockey player and he for some reason felt that she could not become a good enough player in Chandigarh. Somewhere, through newspapers or word or mouth, he got to know about my academy. He brought Sharmila to my house, but I told him why to bring her so far from home, I had only coaching, nothing really for diet or any boarding. But, he was 80 years old, and with folded hands, he requested me again and said, ‘issko player banao, aap ke jholi main daal diya,’ (I’ve put her in your hands, make a player out of her),” former women’s team captain Pritam Rani Siwach, who has an academy in Sonipat, told Scroll.in.
“I was a bit hesitant at the start, but agreed. Got her admission at a hostel nerby. I knew she was talented and tried to get her as many games as possible. She kept working hard, kept growing, and never looked back.”
Last year, she won the FIH Rising Star Award.
Having made her senior international debut at the age of 17, Sharmila slowly established herself as a regular in the squad. She was a part of India’s historic run to the Tokyo Olympics semifinals, before returning to compete in the Junior World Cup in April.
Just like in Tokyo, India narrowly missed a podium finish at the Junior World Cup too. But the experiences served as an important lesson for Sharmila early in her career.
“The Junior World Cup was a great experience,” she said. “We had a young team and improved a lot as the tournament progressed. We didn’t win a medal but thought we deserved it.”
Along the way, a sense of stability provided by the seniors in the Indian team has played a key role in Sharmila’s progress. Not just on the field, she’s grateful for the guidance off it too.
“We have a number of seniors in our squad and they are all incredibly supportive. They always help us improve our mistakes. Experienced players know what to do in different moments and we don’t have that experience yet. So it’s great to have that support,” she said.
Ask Sharmila about her role in the side and her answer is straightforward. While playing domestic hockey, coaches would often change her position. But since she joined the national camp, she has mostly player as a striker. And she seems clear about what is expected of her.
“A striker’s only duty is to enter the circle, create pressure, score goals, and try to earn penalty corners,” she said.
However, ask coach Janneke Schopman and you get a more nuanced answer. The former Dutch international is keen to establish a method to the madness.
“Sharmila has the raw speed,” Schopman told Scroll.in. “We give a long pass to her and she starts running and that’s great, but then she’s alone in the circle and the rest are like ‘yeah, you’re so quick, good luck’.
“What we’re really trying to do now is to get everyone to play a little bit shorter and together. Play more 10-15 meter passes... combine and connect. We have so many players with attacking skills... we’re trying to get everyone involved and when we do that, we start playing better. You keep passing and getting the ball back and all of a sudden you’re in the circle, and then you still have something to do instead of being out of breath with another defender coming at you. We’ve been trying to connect the speed with the skill.”
Pace has come naturally to the youngster. The crafty stickwork is something she needed to develop.
“She had limited skills to begin with. She had great speed but couldn’t control it well inside the circle,” recalled Siwach.
“When she got selected in the national camp, I kept pushing her to work on her stick-work. She has improved a lot over time but I feel if she keeps going, she can become a truly world class player.”
Sharmila definitely has the X factor. As she suggested, the game these days is about endurance and she could provide the Indian team the spark they need at the World Cup.
From the Tokyo Olympics to the Asia Cup, the Junior World Cup and most-recently in the Pro League, her game has matured steadily. Her fiery pace has impressed one and all, but perhaps what’s just as promising is the fire in her belly.
“My goal is to win an Olympic gold medal,” she said. “Just like every other player, I too dreamt of playing for the country and competing in big events. But once you reach a certain level, you start looking at things a bit differently and your dreams become bigger.”
With additional reporting by Vinayakk Mohanarangan