Forty years ago, the man now fondly known as “Uncle Percy” escorted England batsman Chris Tavare on the pitch at the P. Sara Oval in the capital Colombo while holding a Sri Lankan flag.
Galle, Sri Lanka:
Cricket-obsessed Percy Abeysekera has been a constant presence at Sri Lanka matches since their first Test against England in 1982 — and even the country’s worst economic crisis cannot keep him away.
Forty years ago, the man now fondly known as “Uncle Percy” escorted England batsman Chris Tavare on the pitch at the P Sara Oval in the capital Colombo while holding a Sri Lankan flag.
Now 85, he has been a regular feature since, allowed on to the field by Sri Lanka’s cricket authorities to accompany the team off after every game, win or lose, still carrying his flag.
And while an avid supporter of his national side, he is known for the respect with which he treats the opposition — a far cry from the sledging employed by the fans of some teams, and even their players.
Naturally, he was at Galle earlier this month when hundreds of protesters climbed the walls of the ancient fort overlooking the ground during the second Test against Australia to demand the removal of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The host country is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence, without the foreign exchange to pay for essentials including fuel and medicines, and leading to widespread shortages.
Hours later, a furious crowd in Colombo forced the president to flee his home, and days after that he flew abroad before submitting his resignation.
“Our team’s performance is better than the performance of the politicians in Sri Lanka,” said Abeysekera.
“Not a single politician can match up to these cricketers,” he told AFP. “They are not politicians, they are lunatics.”
“I hate politics,” he added.
Abeysekera has twice been invited to join the Sri Lankan cricket board but declined the position.
“There are three things I don’t like in the whole world, one is politics, the other one is cricket administration, and the third one is birth control,” he said.
His grandsons are named Garfield after the West Indies’ Sobers, the first batsman to hit six sixes in a first-class over, and Sachinka for Indian batting great Sachin Tendulkar.
‘Honour the loser’
Cricket has offered Sri Lankans a welcome distraction from their country’s travails, with a 3-2 one-day series win over Australia followed by a 1-1 Test series draw.
Pakistan are currently touring the Indian Ocean island, with the hosts looking to bounce back on Sunday from a defeat in the first Test in Galle.
Abeysekera has worked for 59 years for a cable company, and friends and family take care of his accommodation at different venues.
He took a bus from Colombo to Galle to attend the current series of games but is having to walk to the stadium with no tuk-tuks available.
“Never have I seen such a crisis,” he said.
“I saw the world war, I saw the tsunami, I saw the LTTE attacks,” he added, referring to the Tamil Tigers who fought a separatist war for decades.
“This is something else, but I somehow manage to come to the ground.”
As a boy, Abeysekera saw Don Bradman play at the Colombo Oval in 1948, and nearly half a century later watched Sri Lanka defeat Australia in Lahore to win the 50-over World Cup, one of his lifetime cricketing highlights.
Abeysekera’s affable demeanour has won him the affection of even his beloved team’s opponents.
Former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe once handed him his man-of-the-match award and he was embraced by Virat Kohli during India’s tour to Sri Lanka in 2015 and even invited into the visitors’ dressing room.
“For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game,” he says, quoting the American sportswriter Grantland Rice.
“Play fair, cheer the victor and honour the loser.”