Deepak Niwas Hooda led the Indian men’s kabaddi team to gold in the recently-concluded South Asian Games in his first international outing as captain of the national team. But even he wouldn’t have been able to predict this twist in the script a few years ago.
“You have no idea how much this makes me happy. It is a massive honour to lead the country and after all the hard work I’ve done, this is really special,” Hooda told Scroll.in.
Financial problems, death of his parents at an early age, and a sister with marital problems had forced a young Hooda to give up on his education and his dreams. It was only the 25-year-old’s love for kabaddi, that he simply refused to let go off.
Living in Rohtak district of Haryana, he saw it as a means to end his misery. Several players from his village had earned a livelihood through the sport and Hooda, still in his teens, began his long, hard battle against the odds with the hope that kabaddi would bring some solace.
Starting his day at 3 am in the morning, he would travel 28km to a neighbouring village for practice. But with the responsibility of educating his sister’s children on his shoulders, Hooda had to scamper for a basic income.
He would return from practice and head straight to the school in his village where he taught the local children English and math. After school, he went to his family-owned farm and worked there for a few hours before making the 28 km-long trip again for another practice session in the evening.
His talent and efforts bore fruit as he began getting recognition on the national stage. The timing coincided with the launch of the Pro Kabaddi League where Hooda was picked up by Telugu Titans for Rs 12.6 lakh. It was a big relief for the youngster who could finally afford a smile.
However, he wasn’t someone to rest on his laurels. He resumed his education and acquired a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rohtak University. It wasn’t easy for Hooda to juggle between his game and studies, especially considering the period was the most crucial time in his kabaddi career.
He was among the top emerging players in the national championships and PKL and that earned him a place in India’s 2016 Kabaddi World Cup squad. He played a crucial hand in the team’s triumph in a tense final against Iran and immediately rushed home to appear for his semester examination. Life had trained him to play multiple roles at a time, so it was hardly surprising that Hooda was an all-rounder on the kabaddi court too.
Life improved for Hooda as he established himself as one of India’s top players, but challenges kept coming. Having made his international debut at the 2015 South Asian Games, the 25-year-old had experienced the highs of winning the World Cup abd captaining a star-studded team in Pro Kabaddi, but also the lows of the agonising Asian Games defeat, injuries, and subsequent loss of form.
However, after this roller-coaster ride, Hooda got the honour of captaining the national team. The Rohtak native who had captained Jaipur Pink Panthers in the last Pro Kabaddi season was not short of experience when it came to captaincy, but team’s results and his own fitness threatened to go against him.
After making a flying start to the season, the Pink Panthers collapsed at the business end of the season to bow out before the playoffs. Hooda sustained an injury to his leg in the latter half of the campaign and was in a race against time to be fit for the national camp.
“I had an injury in my leg and it was giving me a lot of pain. I thought I may not make it to the camp but my friends motivated me to give my best shot. I took care of the injury well and managed to be fit before the camp,” the 25-year-old said.
“International tournaments don’t come along very often and the competition in Indian kabaddi is so fierce that if you miss a chance, someone else takes your place. So, I had to train while nursing the injury so that I could do well in the camp. It was hard but I did it,” he added.
With the coaches opting for a young squad, Hooda was the most experienced player in the camp. Despite Jaipur’s struggles, his individual performance was impressive and thus he became the obvious choice for captaincy.
“There were celebrations in my village. My sister and her family were delighted. All these years they used to be happy with just my selection in the team but now I was the captain. We are all very close and it was a ceremonious occasion for all of us,” he said.
Coping with pressure
Hooda took a talented yet inexperienced team to Nepal for the 2019 South Asian Games. And despite the absence of strong competition, India could not take things lightly after how things had panned out at the Asian Games in Jakarta last year.
What made the job more difficult was the fact that apart from him, only Pardeep Narwal and Surender Nada had played for India before. But having played under several top captains in his career, the all-rounder had the answers.
“I learnt a lot from Ajay Thakur. He is a great man-manager and knew how to inspire his players. He was very empathetic and I tried to do the same with these boys,” he added.
The team had better balance than the Asian Games squad and breezed their way into the final where they beat Sri Lanka 51-18 in the final. The Lankans had caught people’s eye in the competition, stunning Pakistan and claiming a silver medal for the first time.
“The competition in international kabaddi is a lot tougher now. All teams are improving. Gone are those days when India could just step out on the court and win at will,” Hooda said before hailing his team’s performance at the event.
After a perfect debut as the captain of the Indian men’s kabaddi team, Hooda has all but made the position his own. Talent, versatility, temperament and leadership, he has it all.
Only 25 years of age, Hooda has plenty of time on his hands and is already looking forward. “We have a team that can be together for many years. Players like Pardeep are sitting on the bench and it just shows our strength. The Asian Games result was not good for us but we are determined to change that. We want to prove that we are the best and will always remain the best in kabaddi. That’s our aim,” said India’s latest kabaddi captain.