When India captain Hardik Pandya announced that Sanju Samson was picked in the XI in the niggle-enforced absence of Ruturaj Gaikwad, the Malahide crowd erupted with cheers and hooting. While Samson went on to mark his comeback with his first T20I half-century, it was Deepak Hooda, who truly stole the show with a spectacular 57-ball 104.
On Sunday, Hooda had shown glimpses of his range, when he hit an unbeaten 47 off 29 balls to drive India's pursuit of 109 in a rain-hit 12-over shootout. Two days later, on a sunnier afternoon, Hooda unveiled his full range en route to becoming India men's fourth T20I centurion behind Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul.
The conditions on Tuesday didn't offer as much seam or swing as it did on Sunday, but the bounce was truer. When Ishan Kishan dashed out of the crease to Mark Adair, the seamer dug it in and had him nicking behind. Five balls later, Adair banged a proper bouncer and angled it into Hooda's front shoulder. It would've cramped most batters, but Hooda swiftly got into position - shuffling across off and getting inside the line - and unleashed a rasping hook over the square-leg boundary.
It should've been a portent but Ireland's attack didn't read the signs. Every time they bowled short, Hooda ruthlessly put them away. According to ESPNcricinfo's logs, Hooda walloped 37 runs off 13 short or short of a good-length deliveries.
When Ireland pitched it up, Hooda was quickly onto the front foot to busily drive them straight or through his favourite extra-cover region. He then began to manufacture his own lengths by advancing at seamers as well as spinners. A down-the-track Kevin Pietersen-esque cut brought him a 27-ball half-century in the 10th over.
Hooda rumbled through the sixties, seventies and eighties, and then slowed down when he was approaching a first international hundred. He needed ten balls to move from 91 to 100, which was the only blip in his innings.
When Hooda ultimately reached a century, off 55 balls, he looked skywards, blew a kiss and soaked in the applause from the Malahide crowd and the Indian dugout. The celebration suggested more relief than jubilation.
Having made his T20 debut in 2013, Hooda has had to wait very long for his moment. He is a journeyman. Hooda's roots are in Haryana, but he grew up in Delhi and Baroda because of his father's job in the Indian Air Force. Hooda could have opted to play for Services in Indian domestic cricket, but chose to make Baroda his home. Ahead of the 2021-22 Indian domestic season, however, he moved to Rajasthan after a spat with Krunal Pandya.
At the IPL, he has been part of Rajasthan Royals, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Punjab Kings and Lucknow Super Giants, largely as a middle-order batter. It was during his most recent stint with Super Giants that Hooda showed that he had the game and gears to bat in the top order too.
Hooda batted four times at No. 3 in IPL 2022, scoring 154 runs at an average of 38.50 and strike rate of just under 134. A fit-again Suryakumar Yadav was widely expected to slot in at No. 3 in Ireland, but India's team management decided to give Hooda a chance at that position and he seized it in both outings.
After Hooda ushered India home in the first match, his mentor and idol Irfan Pathan tweeted: "Dabang @HoodaOnFire has been a revelation in the last one year or so. He has batted at number 1,3,4,5,6 in the last year or so & batted in style [sic]."
Hooda enhanced his reputation in the second T20I and although he hasn't bowled in his last 15 T20s, his quickish offspin is certainly an option against left-hander heavy batting line-ups. On his T20I debut, against Sri Lanka in Lucknow in February this year, he pinned down Charith Asalanka, who is otherwise strong against spin, to nine off eight balls. Shreyas Iyer aside, Hooda is perhaps the only batter among India's T20 World Cup probables who can pitch in with the ball.
"I like playing in that [aggressive] manner and according to the situation," Hooda said at the post-match presentation after bagging the Player of the Match and Player of the Series awards. "Nowadays, I'm getting [the chance] to bat up the order, so I have my time and [I'm] batting according to the situation."
In India's previous T20I series against South Africa, at home, Dinesh Karthik strengthened his case for a T20 World Cup spot, with his sensational finishing skills. In Ireland, it was Hooda's turn to do so, with top-order salvos.