ICC World Cup: Uncle Percy, Sri Lankan cricket’s one-man cheering squad

Invariably armed with the Sri Lankan flag, Percy Abeysekara would be present around the globe wherever the islanders played

Percy with his flag (Photo: Social media)
Percy with his flag (Photo: Social media)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When a leading cartoonist like Satish Acharya draws something in tribute at the passing away of an overseas cricket fan, it ought to be an indication of that fan's extraordinary stature. The tribute was in honour of Percy Abeysekara, who has ensured his place in cricket folklore. ‘Uncle Percy’ who was Sri Lankan cricket's — and the sub-continent’s — most famous cheerleader for more than four decades, passed away in Colombo on Monday at the age of 87. 

It was only fitting that his end came during the 50-over World Cup, that too on a day when Sri Lanka were playing a league game against giantkillers Afghanistan. The result wouldn’t have left the old man too pleased, but he went through the thick and thin of the island’s growth from a fledgling cricketing nation to becoming world champions in1996. 

Invariably armed with the Sri Lankan flag, Percy would be present around the globe wherever the islanders played. At the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo in particular, his presence would be mandatory. Long before the cult of wearing face paint and waving flags, Percy was the original, the pioneer — earning the respect of generations of cricketers, and fans of other countries too. 

Cartoonist Satish Acharya's tribute to Uncle Percy
Cartoonist Satish Acharya's tribute to Uncle Percy

“From my debut till my last game Uncle Percy was a constant. His contribution to the game in Sri Lanka stands equal to any of the players that have worn the shirt. His energy, his passion, knowledge and rhyme will be sorely missed. Rest in peace Uncle Percy,” wrote Sri Lankan cricket icon Kumar Sangakkara on X. 

This is how Rex Clementine, a celebrated cricket writer in Sri Lanka who is in India for the World Cup, remembered Percy during a phone conversation: ‘’Percy was one of a kind. He was an educated guy and a rare breed who had seen Sir Don Bradman play in Sri Lanka and would regale you with anecdotes about figures like Sir Garfield Sobers (a mentor for Sri Lankan cricket in the 1960s) and Neil Harvey to the modern greats.’’ 

While he would send words of encouragement and praise for the home team on the ground, Percy would also compose rhymes and songs to get under the skins of rival teams — all done without a shred of malice. 

‘’He was an accountant by profession and was employed by a cables company until the last day of his life. The owner of the company, a huge cricket buff himself, would sponsor his overseas trips,’’ Clementine recalled. Visas were never a problem. One story goes that before the 1983 World Cup in England, powerful politician and Sri Lanka cricket board president Gemini Dissanayake wrote to the UK high commissioner requesting a visa for Percy. 

Only in September during the Asia Cup in Colombo, Indian skipper Rohit Sharma visited a bedridden Percy at his residence in a touching gesture, just one example of the respect he earned from rival players. Another good example was Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist stepping in to dissuade the police when Percy was about to be hauled away from a ground in Australia for running into the playing arena.  

A few years ago, he had said in an interview: “Till I can walk, I will be at stadiums cheering the boys and waving the Sri Lankan flag.” There will never be another ‘super fan’ like him.

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