Uncertainty. Despair. Darkness.
In January 2021, Deepak Hooda’s life would revolve around these three words. By his own admission, it was the “toughest” phase of his life in which everything seemed lost.
On the eve of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy opener, Hooda had left the Baroda team’s bio-bubble after an alleged spat with India international and the team captain Krunal Pandya, which led to the Baroda Cricket Association suspending him for the entire season.
While his team-mates and friends played domestic cricket, Hooda confined himself to his room and would hardly interact with family and friends. He thought his cricketing career was over and there won’t be another chance.
Cut to January 26, 2022.
It’s almost 11 o’clock in the night and Hooda’s phone has been ringing continuously. Just a few minutes ago, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced the India squad for the home series against the West Indies, and taking many by surprise, Deepak Hooda earned a call-up in the ODI squad .
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” Hooda tells Sportstar . “The last year was certainly a roller-coaster, but with the help of Irfan bhai (Irfan Pathan), Yusuf bhai (Yusuf Pathan) and all the members of my family, I could overcome the odds and again dream big. It is difficult to describe the feeling in words, but for sure, this is one of the most rewarding moments…”
Hooda was part of the Indian squad for the last time in 2017-18, but could not break into the final eleven. “It took me five years to get another opportunity. To be honest, ahead of every season, I thought that this time I would break into the team, but that never happened. But the last one year taught me that you have to wait for your opportunity,” he says.
During the “dark phase,” the Hooda family and the Pathan brothers - Irfan and Yusuf - made sure that Hooda remained confident and well prepared for the IPL, despite being suspended by the BCA on the grounds of “indiscipline.”
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While the family tried to boost the confidence of the player, Irfan and Yusuf slowly got him back to training. They would spend hours with him in the nets at the Motibaug ground and the Police ground in Vadodara, making sure that Hooda did not feel demotivated.
“At that stage, it was important to boost his self-belief and we would talk about how he should focus not just about the IPL but also about making it to the Indian team. After he was done with his batting, I would ask him to bowl to me, and he would do that. It was important to motivate him,” Irfan says.
Even Hooda admits that he was “part of a process.”
“Irfan and Yusuf bhai deserve all the credit for helping me overcome the odds. Being a mentor, they taught me so many things and those lessons have actually helped me. Those days have made me a matured cricketer,” Hooda says.
After the suspension, there was uncertainty on whether Hooda will be able to feature in the IPL, but Punjab Kings - under coach Anil Kumble - showed faith in the youngster and he had a decent run in the tournament.
“Anil sir had a significant role to play. He motivated me immensely during that phase. I had not played any domestic cricket last year, so it was not easy to get into the groove, but he gave me that confidence. To have the backing of a legend like him is a huge thing,” Hooda says.
Even the then Punjab Kings captain K. L. Rahul backed him. “On and off the field, K. L. has been a big inspiration. He always supported me and those things actually helped me boost my confidence during the IPL…”
And ahead of this domestic season, Hooda took another big decision - he parted ways with Baroda and moved to Rajasthan. It was walking into the unknown, but the move worked wonders for Hooda as he became the second highest run-getter in the tournament, amassing 294 runs in six games. Soon, the Rajasthan Cricket Association appointed him as the captain for the Vijay Hazare Trophy, a tournament in which he scored 198 in six matches - including a century against Karnataka.
“Moving to Rajasthan was like a re-birth. It gave me a new lease of life and despite coming from a different State, I received a warm welcome and everybody - the team-mates, the coaches - were very welcoming. They made me feel at home and they supported me in every sense. They allowed me to bat in my position and lead the team. It has been an incredible journey…”
Hooda’s selection in the ODI squad has come as a surprise for many, especially with the fact that he is not in the T20I side. But by showing faith in him, the Chetan Sharma-led selection committee has not only proven that there is still enough room for utility players, but also has given Hooda a ray of hope.