24 November 2020

Percy is the national flag

Percy. Ape Percy. Percy from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s Percy. Sri Lanka’s One-Man Cheering Squad. Percy Abeysekera. Cricket lovers know him and not just fans in Sri Lanka. He’s received accolades from all corners of the cricketing world.

He’s cheered his country’s team for decades. Before and after Sri Lanka received ‘Test’ status. Captains came and went. Batsmen and bowlers made their debuts, had brief or long careers, retired hurt, retired at their prime or retired long after they ought to have, but Percy never did. Captains came and went.

Percy says he started cheering with the national flag only in 1979, although he had been a keen spectator since the time ‘All Ceylon’ played the visiting Aussies led by Don Bradman in 1948. There was a world cup tournament that year, 1979, in England. This was when the Board of Control didn’t have money. There were no television contracts. No sponsorships. I remember a request being circulated in the newspapers at the time — someone launched a fund to buy Percy a ticket to go cheer our boys. I believe he accompanied the team.

Sixty years or more is a long time for anyone to do anything consistently. Percy carried our flag for all of that length of time. Obviously he’s seen much, experience much and remembers more than anyone has or can of this time when it comes to Sri Lankan cricket.

He has jotted down some memorable moments: a) Dancing on board an airplane with Sri Garfield Sobers, the then Sri Lankan coach, on the way back to Colombo after the 1983 World Cup in England, b) Helped save the life of Sir Garfield when a mob wanted to set fire to his car when Sobers was on his way back to Barbados, during the height of the 1983 July riots, c) Cheering Warnapura’s team during a Test at Chepauk, defying death threats from the LTTE Tigers in Madras, in 1982, d) Cheering Sri Lanka during her inaugural Test at Lord’s amidst threats from the British Police, e) Martin Crowe’s presentation of two of his Man of the Match trophies, saying they were for ‘Percy’s love for cricket’ and his ‘patriotism.’

If we start from 1979, he’s cheered teams led by Anura Tennekoon, Bandula Warnapura, Duleep Mendis, D.S. De Silva, Ranjan Madugalle, Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda De Silva, Hashan Tillekeratne, Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu, Mahela Jayawardena, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillekaratne Dilshan, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Suranga Lakmal and Dimuth Karunaratne. We could add the ODI and T-20 captains too.

He’s outlasted them all. And the umpires too. And captains and players from other teams as well. Fans typically outlast their heroes of course. On the other hand, there are few fans whose fanaticism will not wane as they move from childhood, through youth, middle age and into the evening years of their lives. Percy has been there. He’s held the flag. He was the flag. He was the ambassador long before the term ‘sporting ambassador’ came into vogue. He was the nation. He kept the flag flying high. He represented us all. He was there when things came right. He picked everyone up when things went sour.

We wish Percy, OUR Percy, a long and healthy life. We wish him many more hours of joy watching the game he loves so much and has come to be identified with.  


Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

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