Hooda builds on early promise
Aside from pure numbers, an equally vital measure of a youngster's readiness for the top league in sport is temperament. Shortly before the Under-19 World Cup in February in the UAE earlier this year, Deepak Hooda was singled out by his coach for his "calm exterior". The Baroda allrounder, a few months short of his 19th birthday, stood out in the tournament not just for his record but also his ability to soak up the pressure when batting in difficult situations. He has already carried forward that promise to the next level by scoring a century on first-class debut for Baroda in the Ranji Trophy 2014-15 opener, against Bengal in front of his family in his adopted city of Vadodara.
Hooda became only the second Baroda batsman to score a century on first-class debut after Snehal Parikh in 1981-82. The build-up to the innings suggested that a big score was around the corner. He was the best batsman and bowler for Baroda in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, with 202 runs in four matches at 50.50 and ten wickets with his offspin at 16.30, including a five-for against Mumbai. His two fifties, including a run-a-ball 88, came in winning causes.
In his short career so far, Hooda already knows what it's like to stay on top of the class, having finished the U-19 World Cup as India's second-highest run-getter and wicket-taker. He was India's understated performer, maintaining a relatively reticent profile on the field compared to his more expressive team-mates like Sarfaraz Khan and Kuldeep Yadav, India's two other finds.
It was in Sharjah, after the fifth-place playoff when a shy Hooda interacted with the media. The atmosphere was jovial after beating West Indies, yet, for Hooda personally, his figures would have tasted sweeter had it not been for an error of judgement in the field. In the tense quarter-final against England, Hooda ran forward from long-on a bit too quickly and spilled a vital catch. Chasing 222, England still needed 68 with only four wickets in hand. The lucky batsman, Joe Clarke, went on to score 42 shortly before England pulled off a thriller. Hooda's earlier heroics - his 68 which rescued India from 24 for 4 - were forgotten.
Recalling the incident, Hooda revealed an interesting coping mechanism to handle such setbacks. "I keep a daily diary. After I dropped the catch against England, I wrote, 'All this happens. I have won matches for the team from difficult positions, so it is important for me to take positives from the match and focus on the next two games.'"
The practice of diary-writing is not entirely new for players his age. Unmukt Chand, who led India to the U-19 World Cup title in 2012, compiled a book based on his diary entries. Hooda's inspiration did not come from Chand but his first coach in Delhi. He stopped writing when his form dipped, but when he moved to Vadodara, his new coach Ajit Bhoite asked him to revive it.
"He told me that the diary is like a mirror," Hooda says. "During good phases, it will tell you how your last innings was, and even during bad phases it will motivate you to do well. Therefore, the diary is my good friend."
Hooda's roots are in Haryana but he has grown up in Delhi and Vadodara because of his dad's transferable job in the Indian Air Force. It helped immensely that his dad, an ex-kabbadi player himself, took an active part in his cricketing development by preparing a pitch behind their Delhi home - a story familiar with the likes of Yuvraj Singh and Vijay Zol, Hooda's U-19 captain.
Hooda could have opted to play for Services, but chose to make Vadodara his home. Good performances at the under-16 level got him a contract with Alembic, a pharmaceutical company in the city. That stint was significant for it introduced him to Irfan Pathan. Irfan was returning from injury and was impressed with Hooda.
"From there on, I have practised regularly with him and our friendship developed," Hooda says of Irfan. "Whenever I have problems, I always speak to him. He is my idol. Seeing him work so hard, I get inspired to follow in his footsteps. The kind of background he has risen from is in itself an inspiration for me."
Like his idol, Hooda, has already experienced batting in different positions. In the U-19 World Cup and before, he was considered a lower-order specialist, noted for his ability as a finisher. In the Vijay Hazare Trophy, both his match-winning fifties came at No. 3. His Ranji ton came at the familiar No. 6 position.
He adds that handling pressure "comes naturally to him". That ability was spotted by B Arun, India's U-19 coach at the World Cup. "He is a guy with amazing confidence. He is our go-to man," Arun said in Dubai. "It's not so much the quantity of the runs, but the quality matters. He remains very cool under pressure and it reflects on his bowling too."
Should those runs or wickets ever desert him, all he needs to do is reach for that diary.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo