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 can’t keep him away.
Forty years ago, the man now affectionately known as ‘Uncle Percy’ escorted England drummer Chris Tavare onto the pitch of P Sara Oval in the capital Colombo while holding a Sri Lankan flag.
Now 85, he has been a regular fixture ever since, permitted on the pitch by the Sri Lankan cricket authorities to accompany the team after every game, win or lose, always carrying his flag.
And although he is a staunch supporter of his national team, he is known for the respect with which he treats the opposition – a far cry from the sledge employed by some teams’ fans, and even their players.
Naturally, he was in Galle earlier this month when hundreds of protesters scaled the walls of the old fort towering over the ground in the second Test against Australia to demand the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The host country is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence, with no foreign currency to pay for basic necessities, including fuel and medicine, and leading to widespread shortages.
Hours later, a furious mob in Colombo forced the president to flee his home, and days later he flew abroad before tendering his resignation.
“The performance of our team is better than the performance of politicians in Sri Lanka,” Abeysekera said.
“Not a single politician can match these cricketers,” he told AFP. “They’re not politicians, they’re lunatics.”
“I hate politics,” he added.
Abeysekera was twice invited to join the Sri Lankan cricket board but declined the post.
“There are three things I dislike in the whole world, one is politics, another is the administration of cricket and the third is birth control,” he said.
His grandsons are named Garfield after the West Indies’ Sobers, the first batsman to hit six sixes in a top class over, and Sachinka for the great Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar.
“Honoring the Loser”
Cricket gave the Sri Lankans a welcome distraction from their country’s struggles, with a 3-2 one-day victory over Australia followed by a 1-1 draw in the Test series.
Pakistan are currently on tour of the Indian Ocean island, with the hosts looking to bounce back from a first Test defeat in Galle on Sunday.
Abeysekera has worked for a cable company for 59 years, and his friends and family take care of his accommodation in different places.
He took a bus from Colombo to Galle to watch the current round of matches but has 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.
“It’s something else, but I managed to come to the ground.”
As a child, Abeysekera watched Don Bradman play at the Colombo Oval in 1948, and nearly half a century later watched Sri Lanka beat Australia in Lahore to win the 50-year-old World Cup, one highlights of his cricketing life.
Abeysekera’s affable demeanor has won him the affection of even opponents of his beloved team.
Former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe once presented him with his man of the match award and he was kissed by Virat Kohli during India’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2015 and even invited into the visitors dressing room.
“Because when the One Great Scorer comes to mark your name, it’s not writing that you won or lost, but how you played the game,” he says, quoting American sportswriter Grantland Rice.
“Play fair, encourage the winner and honor the loser.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)