IT’S 4.30 pm and close to stumps on Day 2 of Baroda’s third Ranji Trophy league encounter against Punjab at the Feroz Shah Kotla. However, their stand-in captain Deepak Hooda is not part of the action. Nursing his injured left index finger, he is watching the game from the sidelines. An attempt to stop a full-blooded cover drive from Manan Vohra has relegated Deepak to beyond the boundary ropes for better part of play on the final session. “I will need to conduct X-Rays,” Deepak says at the end of the day’s proceedings.
The freak injury is surely a tragi-comic moment for the 21-year-old. Taking over the reins in the absence of Irfan Pathan, he struck his career-best score in first-class cricket — a delightful unbeaten 293 to propel Baroda to 529 in their first innings. Even though he would eventually remain not out, he fell short of what would have been a well deserved triple ton by only seven runs.
Deepak’s knock was crucial on many counts. Firstly, the kind gumption with which he batted in the opening session on Day 1, gave his side the platform to launch themselves towards this humongous score. Secondly, the manner in which he shepherded the tail once again underscores his maturity and growth as a player.
Deepak has played at the famed Kotla before — at the U-19 level and terms the venue his personal favourite. However, what would have made this knock even more special was his father Jagbir Hooda’s presence. “My father is here… he has come to watch me play,” Deepak gushes. Jagbir, an Airforce Sergeant for nearly three decades, has taken voluntary retirement last year. This means he now has time on his hands — enough to crisscross the country this Ranji season and watch Baroda, and more importantly, his son bat. Deepak will not be complaining though. For his father has been a lucky charm for him this season.
So far, Jagbir has witnessed his son score three consecutive tons, and going forward, he is planning to watch Baroda’s remaining league games. “So far, I have been to all the matches where Baroda have played. Going forward, I hope to watch all the remaining league games as well,” Jagbir says. His professional commitments with the Airforce had prevented him from travelling last season. Nevertheless, he did manage to watch Baroda’s home games last year.
Having spent his childhood in Delhi (Deepak was in the city till he was 16), it was here he took the first steps towards fulfilling his childhood dream — that of becoming a cricketer. Thankfully for Deepak, he got support from his sport-loving father Jagbir. “As a child, he would participate in basketball and even in athletics events. But he was barely 10, when he came up to me and said: “Mujhe cricketer banna hain,” Jagbir explains. He ponders for a moment to think who or what made him fall in love with the game. “It’s Kevin Pietersen I guess. He is a big fan of him,” he adds. Since Deepak was good at academics, Jagbir did not stop his son indulging a bit more in the sport he loved.
Jagbir, who was a kabbadi player with the Services, got Deepak enrolled into Delhi’s Young Friends Cricket Club, under the tutelage of coach RP Sharma. After spending four years in the city, Jagbir was transferred to Baroda — where Deepak’s cricketing career was to take wings and soar further.
Deepak’s first coach remembers him as the precocious kid with an irresistible eye for mischief. When he joined the club a decade ago, Deepak told Sharma that he wanted to bowl off-spin. Seeing his jerky, and a slightly awkward bowling action, Sharma advised him to concentrate on his batting instead. But the young ward was steadfast. He wanted to perfect his action and continue bowling off-spin. “He did not have a clean action when he bowled. So, I asked him to concentrate on his batting. I even coaxed him to keep wickets. But he hated it,” Sharma says.
With time, he improved his batting and even honed his action. This happened after his stint with the NCA. With a tweaked action, Deepak was a rage with the ball during the U-19 World Cup two years ago. “I remember he would consistently pick wickets,” Sharma adds.
But batting was still his forte. He is not surprised by Deepak’s run deluge this season though. “That’s because he has worked hard on his game. Even after all these years, he still keeps in touch with me. Before the start of the season, he had personally come to Delhi to meet me,” he says. Sharma adds that the bulk of the credit for Deepak’s early success must go to his father Jagbir. “His father has been instrumental. I remember there were days when he (Jagbir) would get up at 5 in the morning and would take his son to the nets. He is an extremely dedicated parent who wants to see his son realise his dream.”
Seeing Deepak’s insouciant stroke-play and his series of consistent scores at the top of the order for Baroda, Sharma reckons his bright young ward is not far off from making his India debut. “This is the best that I have seen him bat. He has matured into a very fine stroke-player. Add his off-spin, and he would be an asset to the Indian team.” Before that happens, Deepak will need to address two pressing concerns: Fix his sore index finger, and secondly help Baroda secure at least three points from the ongoing game against Punjab.