Surinder Khanna © Getty Images
Surinder Khanna © Getty Images

Born June 3, 1956, the cavalier Surinder Khanna was one of the hardest hitters of the ball in Indian domestic circuit in the 1980s. Unfortunately, being a contemporary of Syed Kirmani meant that his international career remained restricted to ODIs. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the Delhi giant who was the hero of the inaugural Asia Cup.

In the 1980s, Syed Kirmani’s presence behind the stumps meant that it was almost impossible for a youngster to break into the Indian side. With Bharath Reddy as another formidable competitor, Surinder Chamanlal Khanna could not earn a Test cap, though he played 10 ODIs with mixed success.

Khanna was safe and efficient behind the stumps, but his real claim to fame lay in his acts in front of it. An extremely hard-hitting batsman, Khanna was a part of the nucleus that helped trigger the phase in the 1980s what Mihir Bose had referred to as The Rise of the North.

On his day Khanna could be brutal, and was an excellent player off the back-foot — a rare gift among Indian batsmen. R Mohan wrote of his strokeplay in Sportstar: “A solid hook stroke, which he is never afraid to employ, completes the picture of a batsman ever willing to take the battle into the opposing camp.”

A career record of 5,337 runs (usually scored at breakneck pace) at 43.39 with 17 hundreds would have made a decent First-Class career on its own, but Khanna also had 182 catches and 52 stumpings to show against his name. He also had 176 ODI runs at 22 (with 2 fifties) against his name in addition to 4 catches and 4 stumpings.

With 133 catches Khanna ranks third among Delhi wicketkeepers after Punit Bisht and Vijay Dahiya; in terms of stumpings he is joint-leader with Anil Khanna (no known blood relation) with 38; in overall victims his 171 is next to only Bisht’s 191.

Khanna also etched his name permanently into cricket literature by turning up to play against Harry Thompson’s Captain Scott XI. It was a team consisting of ten lawyers and one Surinder Khanna, and he smashed the hapless bowlers into pulp. Thompson has duly described the incident in his eloquent prose in his classic Penguins Stopped Play, one of the finest books in the history of the sport.

Early days

Born in Delhi, Khanna became an instant success in Ranji Trophy on his First-Class debut against Services. Batting at seven he slammed 66 (Inderjit Singh kept wickets), and by next season he had assumed duties behind the stumps. In his third match he set a Delhi record by effecting 8 dismissals in a match (Bisht currently holds the record with 9 — a feat he has achieved twice).

His ability to score quick and big at the same time earned him promotions up the order, and opening batting against East Zone he scored 134 on his Duleep Trophy debut. Later that season he amassed 136 against Services.

Surinder Khanna
Surinder Khanna scored 408 runs at an average of 102 in his final Ranji Trophy season. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

The magnum opus came when he scored 111 and 128 against Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy final of 1978-79, thereby becoming the second Delhi batsman to score two hundreds in a match (after Tiger Pataudi). Moreover, he put up 256 for the sixth wicket with Mohinder Amarnath in the second innings — still the highest partnership for Delhi for the sixth stand.

Delhi won their maiden Ranji title. Khanna, humble as ever, later reminisced in an interview with Vijay Lokapally for The Hindu: “It happened. 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… I was so engrossed in batting that I did not realise I had scored my second century.”

Following an excellent season (901 runs at 75.08; with 657 runs at 82.12 he finished second on the Ranji Trophy runs chart) and Kirmani’s omission from the 1979 tour of England, Khanna made the tour along with Reddy, the quintessential reserve wicketkeeper. Khanna was not happy with Kirmani’s omission. “It was one of those decisions which were not taken in the interest of Indian cricket. I wish I had gone as understudy to Kiri,” he later said to Clayton Murzello in an interview with MiD-day.

ODI debut

Khanna made his ODI debut in the 1979 World Cup — the worst World Cup campaign for India till date. They lost all three matches (including one against Sri Lanka, the minnows of contemporary cricket); batting down the order, Khanna scored a 12-ball duck against West Indies at Edgbaston before Michael Holding snared him.

He was relegated to No. 9 against New Zealand at Headingley, but things were not a lot different: Brian McKechnie dismissed him for a 16-ball 7. Against Sri Lanka he became a victim of Tony Opatha for a 17-ball 10. The selectors opted for Reddy for all 4 Tests that followed. The only consolation came in the fact that he was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

The steep way back

Delhi won the next Ranji title as well, though by then the other Surinder in the side — Amarnath — had taken up the big gloves. They lost in the final of 1980-81, but made it thrice in four times the following season. Khanna scored a gutsy 143 (he came out at 92 for 5; 246 were scored during his stay) against Bombay in the 1982-83 semi-final at Kotla, but the effort went in vain.

Following several decent performances at domestic level Khanna was brought back to the Indian side for the inaugural Asia Cup of 1984 at Sharjah at the expense of Kirmani. He later told Murzello: “It was a big decision to leave Kiri out and play me and I was glad to live up to expectations and perform.”

Khanna’s greatest moment

Pakistan had surprisingly been trounced by Sri Lanka in the opening match of the tournament. The Lankans were up against the Indians. Kapil Dev missed the tournament due to a knee operation; from the commentary box he saw Chetan Sharma, Manoj Prabhakar (on debut), and Madan Lal scything through the Sri Lankan line-up, bowling them out for 96. Out walked Surinder with Ghulam Parkar.

Vinothen John bounced the first ball, and Khanna hooked him for four. “That’s the kind of form he is in,” said Kapil Dev from behind the microphone. The target was reached in 21.4 overs, Khanna remaining unbeaten on a 69-ball 51 and Parkar on a 68-ball 32. Khanna was named Man of the Match.

Pakistan were up next, and this time Khanna went after them. He smashed 56 in 72 balls on a green track before falling to Mudassar Nazar, and once India reached 188 for 4 in 46 overs Pakistan did not stand a chance against some tight bowling from the Indians. Roger Binny and Ravi Shastri picked up 3 wickets apiece, and India won by 54 runs, and along with it, the Asia Cup.

Surinder was named Man of the Match as well as the Man of the Series, the total prize money amounting to $10,000 (a substantial sum in 1984). He made sure it was shared with the team before they left town. “Money was never important. I played the game for love of the sport, the passion for the game,” he later told Murzello.

Elsewhere, he told Lokapally: “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 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.”

The last few ODIs

Despite the immense success, Khanna’s career never took off from there. He failed in the four ODIs against Australia at home, but was still retained for the tour of Pakistan. The hosts put up 199 for 7 in their allotted 40 overs in the first ODI at Quetta; opening batting, Khanna slammed a 37-ball 31, but India collapsed to 153.

He showed glimpses of returning to form after the Quetta innings, but went down with a hamstring injury before the next ODI at Sialkot, and was replaced by Kirmani. The tour was called off during the match following Indira Gandhi’s assassination; Khanna never played another international match.

Back to domestic cricket

Khanna scored 114 on his return, against Punjab. His form never seemed to dip as the hundreds kept coming. In 1985-86 he took 5 catches in the first innings and scored 155 against Jammu & Kashmir. He started 1987-88 with 143 against the same opposition.

His career-best of 220 not out came in his next match — against Himachal Pradesh: he added 348 with Manu Nayyar and an unbeaten 133 with Bhaskar Pillai, and Delhi won by a colossal margin for the loss of a single wicket. He played only two more matches before hanging up his boots, finishing with 408 runs at 102 in his final season. He was a mere 31.

Post-retirement

Following his retirement Khanna became a cricket expert for All India Radio. In his later days Khanna coaches at his own academy (where the age of the students can vary from 4 to 35) at Pitampura DDA Sports Complex. He also works as Deputy General Manager (Sports) at Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), and has helped set up football and archery academies for them. He is also responsible for initiating the SAIL Open Golf Tournament.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)