How Deepak Hooda turned things around (with a little help from Irfan Pathan)

A year ago, he didn't have a domestic team and things were looking grim. Then came the upswing

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Long time coming: Deepak Hooda's first international hundred was this June, in a T20I against Ireland  •  Sportsfile/Getty Images

Long time coming: Deepak Hooda's first international hundred was this June, in a T20I against Ireland  •  Sportsfile/Getty Images

In February 2021, Deepak Hooda contemplated stepping away from cricket. He had just been suspended by the Baroda Cricket Association (BCA) following a run-in with the captain, Krunal Pandya.
He was in a spot. His IPL career hadn't yet taken off, and the pandemic threatened to make things worse, with the uncertainty it brought to the domestic calendar. Memories of Hooda's big hitting in his debut IPL season, 2015, which had brought a flood of "Hurricane Hooda" headlines, were starting to fade.
Hooda needed a helping hand. He found one in Irfan Pathan, the former India allrounder and Baroda alumnus and captain. Irfan had backed Hooda when he left Baroda, and called the BCA's decision to reprimand Hooda in the wake of his spat with Pandya "shocking and disheartening".
"Apna time aayega" (Your time will come) Irfan said to Hooda.
In February this year, when Irfan scrambled to find an adequate mobile data signal while on the road, to watch Hooda being handed his India cap by Rahul Dravid in Ahmedabad against West Indies, Hooda's time had indeed come.
"It was like my debut again," Irfan says. It felt that way because he has mentored Hooda since the youngster moved to Baroda as a 15-year-old when his father, Jagbir, an officer in the Indian Air Force, was posted there in 2010.
Hooda's roots are in Haryana and he represented that state in the Under-16s. He was also eligible to play for Services (which comprises players who or whose families serve in the army, air force or navy) but decided to try his luck in Baroda and made it into the side.
Now, his exiting that team has coincided with a remarkable change in fortunes. An India call-up came in February, following his first season with Rajasthan, his new domestic team. That was followed by a breakout IPL season with Lucknow Super Giants, where, having patched things up with Pandya, he played alongside him in the line-up; Hooda made 451 runs at a strike rate of 136.66. Last month he made first century for India, in a T20I against Ireland. Recently the BCA made public their wish to see him back playing for them.
In the absence of senior team-mates, the upcoming limited-overs series in the West Indies, and possibly one in Zimbabwe after that, could set Hooda up nicely to be in the fray for India's T20 World Cup side. Apart from offering the flexibility of being able to bat up and down the order, he also bowls handy part-time offspin.
At the IPL, Gautam Gambhir, Lucknow's mentor, was impressed with Hooda's desire. "Gauti told him, whatever happens, you will play all the games," remembers Vijay Dahiya, the assistant coach at the franchise. "Deepak was pleasantly surprised, because it's the kind of backing he hadn't got in the IPL."
The turnaround started in June 2021. Hooda had been a part of every IPL season since 2015 but had faced over 100 balls only once in a full season. Not getting opportunities to prove his game smarts as a proper batter bothered him.
Signing for Rajasthan was something of a move born of desperation. Their current form was far from his mind. And he wasn't thinking about the turmoil in their set-up either; different factions have claimed to be running the game in the state, and there has been financial mismanagement, which has forced the BCCI to form an ad-hoc committee to administer cricket.
"He wanted game time, and we wanted a batting allrounder," Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) secretary Mahendra Sharma says. "He wasn't fussed about money. He didn't ask for [the kind of] fee that professionals do. He said, let us mutually benefit each other. In return, we were happy to have someone who could lend their experience to our junior cricketers."
Before the domestic season began, the Pathan brothers helped Hooda get his mind back on cricket. They put together an intensive camp for him. "The idea was to first get his mindset right," Irfan Pathan says.
"Yusuf is the kind of person who would see a positive even in the direst situation. Having someone like that helped. One of us ensured we were around. If I was away with media commitments, we'd speak regularly on the phone, while Yusuf would take him through his training." On such days, Irfan would also analyse video footage of Hooda in training.
"I told him, if you are playing and training expecting something in return, it's never going to work," Irfan says. "You have to train your mind in a way where you're giving your best without expecting anything in return. If something comes your way, great. Else, keep at it."
Every day, for two months, Hooda would be in the nets by 7am sharp. A two-hour conditioning session would be followed by multiple gruelling batting sessions. On days he was to train on black-soil surfaces, he'd train at the police grounds. On days he was to bat on red-soil wickets, he'd head over to the Moti Baug grounds. The training sessions were so in-depth that there was even a throwdown specialist, brought in by Irfan.
"He started becoming calmer because this set routine didn't give him time to ponder about his future," Jagbir says. "I could see he was agitated and he was making an effort to do better, but until he reached out for help, he wasn't in a good frame of mind. As parents we tend to feel sorry for our child. But all he needed at that time was the confidence, and I couldn't be more thankful to Irfan and Yusuf."
Irfan began to notice a marked improvement by the time the domestic season came around. "He always had the range of shots, but we wanted to maximise his stay at the crease.
"His off-side play was a bit of a hindrance. He needed to keep his hands relaxed and not jab. His hands needed to be more fluid. And when he started playing with loose hands, he could access different parts of the ring.
"We also made adjustments to his stance, depending on the format. He worked on using the crease to maximise scoring opportunities in different areas, hitting boundaries along the ground by finding gaps - we simulated all of this."
Hooda kick-started the domestic season in style, finishing as the second-highest run-scorer in the Mushtaq Ali T20s. His 294 runs in six innings came at a strike rate of 168 and Rajasthan made the quarter-finals. In the Vijay Hazare one-dayers, though his overall numbers were slightly underwhelming, he made a sensational 109 against favourites Karnataka in a pre-quarter-final.
It happened to be a game several IPL talent scouts were at. On auction day, as many as six teams raised their paddles before Hooda was signed for Rs 5.75 crore (about US$725,000) by Lucknow.
"He's a keen student of the game," Dahiya says. "He wants to get better every day. There is purpose to his training, the hunger is immense. But sometimes, he could become too intense for someone who is keen to do well. He can be hard on himself at times.
"The shorter formats can be unforgiving, so we had to speak to him a few times to let go and be less intense. The thing with such a mindset is, when things are going well, you aren't going to find too many issues, but when things don't come off, that is when it could get tricky. But he'll learn, he has a tremendous work ethic, and it's all part of his development as a player."
Hooda's remarkable turnaround doesn't surprise Irfan, who says he should serve as a role model for players who don't break through early.
"Two years ago, Hooda himself wondered if the India cap would come. Today, he is a shining example of someone who has proved if you accept your shortcomings and make a conscious effort in working on it, that's half the battle won.
I am excited at what he can possibly offer to the Indian team. He's just 27. If he offers India six-seven good years, he has the potential to achieve a lot more."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo