26th July, 2022, Malehide. The venue is densely populated with Indian fans – almost all of whom are taken aback when Deepak Hooda strides out to open alongside Ishan Kishan. For context, India have restricted Ireland to 108 in 12 overs and seem destined to nudge ahead in the two-match T20I series. But with Hooda opening the batting – something that he has never done before in the shortest format, there is scepticism.
Not just because he has come out to bat ahead of Ruturaj Gaikwad, but also because Hooda has long been on the periphery of the Indian side and has never been touted as a genuine match-winner. To the Lucknow Super Giants batter, though, none of it matters. He takes a bit of time to settle but once he does, he does not look back. He puts the Irish bowlers to the sword and guides India to a comfortable victory.
Prima facie, a 47-run unbeaten knock against Ireland might not send shockwaves across the cricketing community, especially coming from Hooda’s bat. For those who’ve followed him, however, it was the sort of innings that was symbolic of his cricketing journey – a journey where he has often not been flashy but has ensured that he hasn’t been forgotten easily either.
Prior to the series against the West Indies, not many felt that Hooda would be a part of the Indian ODI side. He hadn’t set the 2021 edition of the IPL ablaze and in a Punjab Kings middle order that usually struggled, he accomplished nothing of note.
Deepak Hooda has grabbed his opportunities for India
Once the opportunity came along, though, he gave an extremely good account of himself. On debut, he joined hands with Suryakumar Yadav and returned unbeaten in what could’ve morphed into a tricky run-chase. A game later, he walked in with India placed at 177/5, which soon became 212/7 post the dismissals of Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar.
Hooda tried his best and even though he could only muster 29 runs off 25 balls, he was the last batter to be dismissed in that essay, highlighting how those runs were crucial to India’s cause. The Men In Blue won that game by 44 runs.
Akin to ODI cricket, Hooda has only batted twice in T20Is for India – once against Sri Lanka, where he scored 21 off 16 and against Ireland, where he mustered 47* off 29 balls. On both instances, he did what was asked of him, and while both knocks weren’t innings that would make the rest of the world sit up and take notice, it was just enough to illustrate Hooda had what it takes to become a constant feature in international cricket.
Over the years, too, the all-rounder has been billed for bigger things. Back in 2014, he participated in the U-19 ICC Cricket World Cup alongside Avesh Khan, Kuldeep Yadav, Sanju Samson and Shreyas Iyer. Each of those cricketers made their India debuts a lot earlier than Hooda. The all-rounder, though, was India’s second-highest run-getter and second-highest wicket-taker at the tournament.
Even at IPL 2022, Hooda was LSG’s third-highest run-scorer. Much of the attention revolved around KL Rahul and Quinton de Kock. Rightly so too. But when considering no other LSG batter breached the 200-run mark, his run-tally of 451 at a strike rate of 136.66 was the perfect foil for the aforementioned pair.
Still, it wasn’t enough for him to capture the imagination. Those with a very keen eye have taken notice. Sunrisers Hyderabad, for example, shelled out INR 4.2 crore at the 2016 IPL auction. LSG, too, trusted him to bat as high as No.3 throughout the duration of IPL 2022. Hooda, however, has never really been dubbed the next big Indian youngster to watch out for, due to a variety of reasons.
One of those was an infamous tiff with Krunal Pandya a couple of years ago. Hooda has since left Baroda and has started plying his trade for Rajasthan in domestic cricket. His love for the game and passion to represent the country hasn’t diminished, though, with his India call-up coming months after his switch to Rajasthan.
There have also been patches where Hooda has just not done enough to warrant a mention in the national selection debate. But there have also been occasions when he has done enough, and therein lies the biggest clue to uncovering this puzzle. When he does well, it hasn’t been propelled into the limelight adequately, and when he fails, the discussion becomes moot very quickly.
If you look deeper, though, it becomes even more perplexing because the LSG cricketer is an archetypal three-dimensional cricketer. He can bat anywhere in the top seven. He can take down pace and spin alike. He can chip in with a few overs if required and is an excellent fielder – both inside the ring and in the outfield. He is a very versatile cricketer who can be banked upon to plug different types of holes.
That, however, could also be his greatest weakness. Because he can do so many things, no one, till a few months ago, really knew what he was best at. He was trialled as a bowling all-rounder. He was looked upon as someone who could finish off games, and he was provided a handful of opportunities in the top three.
Now, it seems people and Hooda have begun understanding what his best position is. He might seem someone who takes time at the crease but he is also someone who has the shots to offset a slow start. He is particularly severe against spin, provided he gets set early and can tee off against pace-bowling too.
India haven’t really used his bowling abilities a lot but if the situation demands, you can be pretty sure he will put his hand up. Not because he wouldn’t want to give away his spot, but because he has probably been doing this his entire career.
For a major chunk of it, it’s not been enough to make people gape in awe, or make them realise that they have someone special in the mix. A part of it can be attributed to him not being as flamboyant as some of his peers. But because he keeps doing the simple things well, he is also not someone that should be easily forgotten.
At the moment, India have an embarrassment of batting riches, and Hooda, despite his recent upturn, might not find a place in the Men In Blue’s T20 World Cup squad. However, if that opportunity were to knock at his door, he might just be as ready as he has ever been.
It came along at Malehide and he did pretty well. It wasn’t flashy but it was just what was needed. If that same scenario is repeated at the MCG or at the SCG, maybe Hooda’s efficiency, rather than perceived lack of extravagance, might just be what India require too.
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