Sharmila Devi- Indian hockey's promising youngster who could be a surprise package in Tokyo Olympics
Indian women's hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne, believes that fearless youngster Sharmila Devi is going to be a surprise package at Tokyo Olympics.
In an age when coaches have made it a habit to meticulously analyse the strengths and weaknesses of key opposition players, throwing in a surprise package or two to surprise rivals is what many a think-tank aims for.
Take for example, Raj Kumar Pal from the Indian men's team. After an encouraging show at the Sultan of Johor Cup, young Raj Kumar Pal made it to the senior men's team for the Hockey Pro League matches last year and confounded the Australians with his darting runs in the attacking third.
Graham Reid's move paid off and the young rookie scored twice against the defending champions while helping to unsettle the experienced Aussie defence. Women's coach, Sjoerd Marijne may have not have the luxury of too many options to choose from, but the Indian eves do plan to unleash a relatively unknown teenager to keep their Group A counterparts at Tokyo on their toes.
While it is a well-known fact that the Dutchman dislikes discussing or highlighting individual players, Marijne had no hesitation in describing to The Bridge what he felt about Sharmila Devi's inclusion in the Olympic squad. "She is a young player and she plays without any fear. She plays with a lot of joy,"
"The other thing about her is that a lot of people do not know her and I think she can surprise many other teams at the Olympics." India's Analytical coach, Janneke Schopman knows exactly what the young striker is capable of.
Promising striker in a seasoned forward-line
As coach of the USA side during the Olympic qualifiers in 2019, Schopman betrayed little emotion as her team dominated the initial exchanges, but failed to score against the hosts at the Kalinga Stadium.
A late first-half goal helped the Indians take the lead but the USA were very much in the contest until they were stunned by an opportunistic effort in the third quarter which altered the course of the game irreversibly. A brilliant move orchestrated by Lilima Minz and Navneet Kaur foxed the USA defence along the left flank which resulted in the ball veering across the face of the goal to conveniently find Sharmila lurking in front of the goalmouth.
It was a true poacher-style opportunistic effort as the ball was deflected home deftly in a flash. A goal which bore the hallmark of a promising striker gifted with the ability to take split-second decisions and execute them ruthlessly in the attacking circle.
In an exclusive chat with The Bridge, the immensely talented youngster from Hisar recounts her phenomenal journey that began at an unpretentious local ground - leading now to biggest sporting event on earth!
Climbing the hockey ladder
"I was very naughty as a child. My dada played hockey at the national level and it was he who first tagged me along to the local ground where I equally fascinated by the hockey ball, the football and the volleyballs there. My initial experiments with the game of hockey began at the local ground and, with time, my interest grew. I joined a hockey academy in Chandigarh in 2012 and was soon selected to play the nationals."
Pritam Rani Siwach, former India international, who was part of the team that won a silver medal in the 1998 Asian Games has been instrumental in shaping Sharmila's career. Incidentally, Pritam Siwach also mentored Neha Goyal who is now a senior member of the Indian side.
"I had heard of Neha Goyal when I was in the Chandigarh academy training under coach, Rajinder Singh sir," says Sharmila as she details the important milestones in her hockey career. "I was selected for the Junior National Camp in 2018. Pritam ji taught me a lot and instilled a lot of confidence in me up until that stage. She also taught me how to bounce back when we are going through a tough period during a match."
Sharmila made her senior debut at the Tokyo Test Event in 2019 which the Indians won after making it to the finals ahead of China and a higher-ranked Australia side.
Beating Japan in the final was the icing on the cake for Rani and co. after having lost to the Japanese girls in the final of the 2018 Asian Games, and Sharmila has no qualms in admitting that the experience was unnerving to begin with. "I was a bit edgy as it was my first international, but I performed really well and learnt a great deal. The tournament will always be memorable for me."
The Tokyo Test Event was played in the month of August and Sharmila reckons that the weather shouldn't trouble the Indian girls too much through the Olympic fortnight as they managed to acclimatize within a couple of days during the 2019 trip.
"It took a while getting used to the weather, but after a couple of days we were pretty comfortable. We practice at twelve noon at SAI, Bangalore and we shouldn't really be having too many issues with the Tokyo heat."
The quality of the contests that Sharmila has been part of more than makes up for her lack of exposure at the international level.
"Pressure in the second leg qualifier against USA was immense"
At the Olympic qualifiers, the Indians were in a must-encounter against the USA, and after winning the first leg by a commanding 5-1 margin, found themselves sinking into an abyss after conceding four quick goals early in the second leg clash.
The desperate Indians were running short of time and ideas when captain Rani finally scored in the last quarter - an unforgettable effort that secured the ticket to Tokyo 2020 thanks to a better cumulative goal count.
For young Sharmila, playing the crucial qualifier matches in front of the mammoth crowds at the Kalinga Stadium was an experience to savour and one that will remain etched in her memory for a long time to come.
"It was the first time I played in front of a crowd that large. We were down 0-4 and unable to find a way to score. The team was under a lot of pressure and I have learnt a bit from that match as to how to handle that level of pressure. It was mindboggling."
For now, though, it's time to celebrate the inclusion in the Olympic squad, even as the team practices harder than ever on the eve of the big event. The emotion is all-too evident as Sharmila recalls how her parents reacted when they got to know that she would indeed be making the trip to Tokyo.
"I wasn't a hundred percent sure that I would make it to the squad. All the same, I knew I stood a good chance. It was my father's dream that I play the Olympics and the dream will now come true."
The newbie lauded the seniors for their support, but Savita Punia got a special mention as the one member of the team who has been by her side through thick and thin.
Out in the center; however, the camaraderie with her teammates up front will be vital to the side's fortunes as Savita scans the action from the goal post.
As part of an aggressive forward line that includes the likes of veterans, Rani Rampal and Vandana Katariya flanked by Lalremsiami and Navneet Kaur, young Sharmila has shown that she has what it takes to split open the staunchest of defences.
What is most incredible, however, is that at 19 years of age and with 9 international caps, the Olympics are just the beginning of a hockey journey for Sharmila – one that promises a lot more than what a young mind can possibly dwell on at the present moment.
The Indian women's hockey team did the unthinkable. The Rani Rampal led side has defeated Australia and etched their name in the history of the sport by reaching the semifinals of the Olympics for the first time in Tokyo.