Surender Khanna recalls his glory days with Delhi and India, and what a stint in Scotland taught him about food
His batting was marked by rare flamboyance, his strokeplay often a furious statement against the best of bowlers. As a wicket-keeper, he was reliable and earned his place on merit, making it to the 1979 World Cup team ahead of a favoured man like Syed Kirmani. For Surender Khanna, cricket was a way of life ingrained firmly and passionately from his formative years in North Delhi.
Ten One Day Internationals and 106 First Class Matches made up Khanna’s career, which began with a half century on debut in 1976. Sixteen matches later, he was shaping Delhi’s maiden Ranji Trophy triumph, against Karnataka at Bangalore in 1979, by hitting a century in each innings.
“It happened,” he says, remembering those centuries as we meet for lunch at Café Uno in Shangri La. “It will not be correct for me to make claims after all these years. But I was glad to have contributed. We had a great captain in Bishan Singh Bedi. He knew how to get the best out of the youngsters. Bedi Saab had a great influence on Delhi making impact at the national level.”
The restaurant is quiet, the ambience serene as Khanna is welcomed with a lime soda. “There is nothing more refreshing,” he takes a long sip before reflecting on that Ranji Trophy final.
“Karnataka had a good side. (Gundappa) Viswanath, (Brijesh) Patel, (EAS) Prasanna, (BS) Chandrasekhar. It was a formidable side. But we had Mohinder and Surinder (Amarnath), Madan Lal, Chetan Chauhan, Rakesh Shukla, and Bedi Saab motivating us all through. I was destined to get those centuries and it just happened. Don’t forget Mohinder made 178 not out and we recovered from 49 for five in the second innings. We had a good partnership (256 runs) and I was so engrossed in batting that I did not realise I had scored my second century.”
The best compliment, Khanna remembers, was seeing an emotional dressing room. “Bedi Saab gave me a warm hug when I returned to the dressing room. He said ‘well done son’ and I cherish that compliment.” His first-class aggregate was an impressive 5337 runs with 17 entertaining centuries.
Khanna opts for some pasta and then moves on to the buffet offerings. “I love rajma and dal,” he chooses his food from a wide spread. His stint in Scotland prepared him to eat what the locals ate. “My friends at the club would take me out for dinner and there I learnt to eat whatever was available. I am not fussy about food. I eat non-vegetarian only once a week. At school, I never ate brinjal and bitter gourd. My father would insist on green vegetables and it was only when I went to college I took a liking for green vegetables. But nothing could match the parantha-pickles that mother would pack for me. It was divine stuff.”
He was India’s hero at the 1984 Asia Cup when he was adjudged the man of the series for his 51 not out against Sri Lanka and 56 against Pakistan. “I loved it. I was told it was a huge thing because we beat Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It was a comeback for me. Sunny (Gavaskar) picked me in the eleven ahead of Kirmani. It was a huge thing too. The Sharjah experience was most encouraging for me personally because it came on a green top.”
Khanna laments the decline in the standards of the game. “I played in an era when players were honest, officials were honest. There was no money those days but cricket was good. Today, everyone wants to come and play cricket and people are willing to go to any extent to push their sons and students. It is too commercialised. Not a good trend at all because the quality has dipped.”
Agreeing that wicket-keeping was a thankless job, Khanna notes, “I was fortunate no one raised a finger or voice when I dropped a catch. There were times when I suggested and the captain agreed. Once Chetan Sharma bowled an extra over, when I suggested it to Sunny, to get rid of Duleep Mendis (in Asia Cup). Another time Mohinder bowled at the cost of Madan to remove Dilip Vengsarkar (bowled round the legs).”
Dessert arrives with some fruits, cream and sugar free sondesh. “No harm in indulging once in a while,” Khanna digs into the sweets. Currently Deputy General Manager (Sports) at Steel Authority of India Limited, Khanna acknowledges, “Office has been very kind in encouraging me. Thanks to my bosses, I could get leave for all sporting assignments.”
He also imparts coaching at his academy at the Pitampura DDA Complex. The 57-year-old Khanna has no regrets at all. “Cricket has given me and my family a good life,” he signs off.