Pardeep Narwal. Rahul Chaudhari. Deepak Niwas Hooda.
Of the three all-time top scorers in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), the top two have long been hailed as poster boys. Hooda, however, has flown under the radar of more celebrated raiders. That is finally changing this season as Hooda and his team Jaipur Pink Panthers are slowly inching towards the top.
The only all-rounder to consistently feature among the top 10 players of the league since Season 2, Hooda's game has a certain simplicity about it. Rather than big scores, it's the long-term result that matters to him in the end. "Of course individual performances are important for any player, but if the team wins, it's a different kind of happiness," he explains. Perhaps that outlook across the board is the reason behind Jaipur's resurgence.
Back in 2014, when the PKL began, Jaipur, the tournament favourites, were the eventual winners. Four years later, in Season 6, they found themselves, in a complete role reversal of sorts, among the bottom three. This season, however, the team have found themselves in a much better position with four wins from their first five matches. The one difference could be the increase in young players in the team. Hooda says, "There is no difference as such between experienced and new players. As long as we get results on the mat, that's the only thing that matters." He finds it, he says, "not hard to make the youngsters perform since they're more gutsy and willing to take risks. When you guide such players well, the results are bound to come."
This is Hooda's third season as captain, the first with Puneri Paltan in 2017 in what became their most successful season to date -- followed by a short stint with Jaipur in the team's final few matches last season. He doesn't find the extra responsibility too demanding. "I don't think my individual performance has ever declined because of captaincy," he says. "It's a responsibility given to you, and you have to live up to it. I actually feel good that I have to take care of the team."
Being an all-rounder, Hooda's actual challenge, he says, are "the practice sessions." Hooda says he spends approximately six hours every day in practice - training as both raider and tackler. Physical training takes place in the day, while match practice happens at night. Known as one of the fittest players on the kabaddi circuit, it's not exactly a surprise when Hooda mentions an unsaid rule: "I can't eat unless I practice," he says.
In kabaddi, the body, Hooda says, must not only be sharp but "agile" too. "And we need power and speed. Our flexibility needs to be at par with a gymnast, so we have to do all kinds of exercises to achieve that." His favourite exercise? "Sprints," he says. "I do them a lot. I feel it boosts my energy and performance."
Those intense practices have resulted in Hooda being the best under the pressure of do-or-die raids (wherein a raider must score to save himself from going out), in which he's nearing a milestone 150 points. "This is my seventh continuous season for PKL. So right now I'm experienced enough to not feel any pressure during do-or-die raids. In fact, I feel good when I can perform well under pressure for my team," he says.
PKL's fifth season in 2017 was known for Pardeep's unforgettable eight-point raid. That season had another memorable moment in Hooda's five-pointer. Playing as Pune's captain in a match against the Tamil Thalaivas in Chennai, the then 23-year-old had injured himself. Hooda's wrist had been bleeding, and yet, he didn't stop. Hooda went on to produce an incredible raid in which he pushed past three defenders in the middle of an almost-successful block, forcing an all-out that turned the tides for the trailing Paltan. The five-pointer, Hooda says, featured his favourite move. "I love to push a defender from the shoulder while taking a raid. I have a lot of fun doing that, uthaake phainkna (lifting up a defender and throwing him out of the way)."
For Hooda, kabaddi is "a very spur-of-the-moment kind of game." He heads into a match without any particular game plan. "Every match comes with a different situation. You can't predict it at all. Suppose a defender is usually good with blocks, but on that particular day decides not to use it against a player," he says. "On the mat you can look at whether a defender who generally goes ahead is going backwards or vice versa, whether he is opting for a thigh hold or an ankle hold move etc. But ultimately, anything can happen."
The best way to go through a raid, then, is to keep in mind that one can get out at any time. "We have to give our reaction in a fraction of a second and change our tactic if necessary," he explains. "Ultimately, you have to score from wherever you can, be it through a bonus or a running hand touch or a kick."
"PKL changed our lives..the biggest thing is the respect we are getting for our game. It feels very good to finally get that" Deepak Niwas Hooda
Other than its fast pace and unpredictability, kabaddi is also known for a peculiar trait - its cant, popularly known as the 'kabaddi, kabaddi' chant. According to this rule, a player has to keep uttering the cant throughout the 30 seconds of raiding time. If he stops, he'll lose a point and will be ousted. When asked if it's difficult to keep the cant going for 30 seconds, Deepak almost seems amused. "As a rule, the first thing you learn as a kabaddi player is the cant. Humare rag rag me basi hui hai ye cheez (It's in our veins). You don't really have to remember saying it, it just happens naturally for us. Once you start, you just keep going," he says.
While he does believe the cant could be a challenge for someone relatively new to the game, he feels it's easy to become habituated to it once it's played on a regular basis. "Our mind, heart and body performs with the cant. Kabaddi begins where the cant does, and it keeps going on till the time we complete a raid, irrespective of whether a struggle is on or not," he says.
Born and brought up in Rohtak, Haryana, Hooda started playing kabaddi in 2009, when he was in Class XII. Taking it up as an easy source for a job, he found himself quickly becoming passionate about the game. "I started playing kabaddi for a job. It was very popular in my village and provided a lot of job opportunities, be it in the Navy or police or banks. But soon, I became very passionate about it," he says. He then played the Nationals for the Jharkhand team in 2014, soon after which he got selected in the Indian camp. Some months later,he was selected in the inaugural PKL for the second-highest bid after then Indian captain Rakesh Kumar.
"PKL changed our lives," he says. "Pehle hume sirf job milti thi, aur kuch nahi. Aaj hum croreon mein bikte hai (Kabaddi players only used to get jobs before this, nothing else. Today, we earn in crores). But the biggest thing is the respect that we are getting for our game. That's so important, and it feels very good to finally get that."
While he describes "bringing the trophy back to the Jaipur Pink Panthers cabinet" as his biggest goal this season, Hooda's individual goal remains modest. "Kabaddi is the kind of game where you have to continuously improve and reinvent yourself. You can learn it throughout your lifetime. I feel that I've increased my power and strength with every season. And my agenda remains to go one step ahead every time," he says.