A Freelance Sports Writer in the Island, where the title is “Percy Abeysekera: Marching to the beat of a different drummer”
He is a master of the English language and of literary devices such as anecdotes and idioms, and he is blessed with an impeccable sense of rhyme in his delivery of meaningful but often slapstick comments. He is a quick-witted man, and intelligent and well thought out humour forms the essence of his comedic persona, says the writer. Here are two Facebook posts made by Sri Lankan cricket fans on Percy. (Files)
We are all born different. Our motivations are varied, but most of us move rigidly through the enigma of life and existence, while adopting a range of careers and vocations. We believe they are at least in part the reason for our existence.
When considering the linear path that most advocate, what could prompt an individual to decide that for the rest of his life he is going to pursue the only thing that makes sense to him, while wholly embracing the risk of being perceived as eccentric and peculiar by those around him? What could compel someone to leave all else behind, and decide that for as long as he lives he is going to ride the tide of fluctuating fortunes associated with Sri Lankan cricket?
For, when it is good, it is exhilarating; when our cricket is circumspect and measured, it can be unbearably frustrating. There is nothing more painful for a Sri Lankan fan, or for any connoisseur of the cricket game for that matter, than to witness a mismatch of potential and actual results. Through it all, Percy has to remain composed, feigning confidence and hope even, for the morale of Sri Lankan fans at a game can often denote the manner in which our team fares.
What lies beneath the surface of an endearing smile? A jovial and happy-go-lucky façade can shroud the deepest of concerns and sorrows. If you observe his ways and habits, his idiosyncrasies, and delve past his bespectacled eyes, there is much that can be gathered.
A man with a refreshing temperament, and immense kindness in his eyes, his now weathered features that have been etched by the ravages of time are indicative of the tumultuous nature of his selfless voyage thus far.
Such is the fate of a bard. He is a story-teller of an era gone by. He is a true character with immense depth of personality and infinite tales to weave. You often encounter such individuals within the sphere of cinema, in books and works of literature. They exude an aura; so does Percy. It is hard to differentiate between fact and fiction with Percy, and his stories are often grandiose and larger-than-life. This is why we adore him. The distinction between truth and myth is blurred, and that is what sustains his legend.
He belongs to a time when loyalty defined your standing in society, and to a school of thought in which integrity and honour were valued above all else. Materialistic pursuits are not held in high regard in this particular world-rationale and system of logic. As such, despite the diverse circumstances and changing fortunes of many from this era, it is easy to discern the sense of respectability and pride that they derive from whatever line of work they are engaged in.
He is the face and orchestrator of the general Sri Lankan attitude towards her one undeniable focal point: cricket. Maybe it is individuals like Percy who have taught us to remain humble in victory and gracious in defeat. After all, we absorb and emulate what we see. Regardless, the party still continues. That is another trait we seem to have collectively imbibed from a champion such as him. Although the festive atmosphere evident during a Sri Lankan game can be attributed to the notion of island-culture prevalent here, the role of Percy and the like have definitely contributed immensely to the formulation of such an energetic and vibrant microcosm of the cricketing fraternity. One simply has to attend a full capacity game at the Khettarama (Premadasa) stadium at night-time, to feel the extent of this uniquely Sri Lankan exhibition of merrymaking.
Furthermore, it is individuals like him who have taught Sri Lankans, perhaps unknowingly and inadvertently, that one’s attitude on and off the pitch can be congruent. It is what has come to define us, at least in the context of cricket and the world stage therein. The following, a quote by Percy himself, epitomises the character of this rare individual: “Honour and shame from no condition rise, act well your part, there all the honour lies.”
He is a master of the English language and of literary devices such as anecdotes and idioms, and he is blessed with an impeccable sense of rhyme in his delivery of meaningful but often slapstick comments. He is a quick-witted man, and intelligent and well thought out humour forms the essence of his comedic persona. Let me narrate a small story involving the entertainer. I have seen him countless times at matches and various events, but I encountered him for the first time in a personal capacity at the Peredeniya Railway Station a couple of years ago, as I was heading to Kandy by train along with a colleague to cover a few novel places in the Hill capital for a magazine. While at the station, it was raining quite steadily, and so we made our way towards the shelter upon disembarking from the carriage. Percy Uncle happened to be there joking about with another elderly individual, without giving his lips or mouth a moment’s rest.
We started talking about the match in Pallekele, the chance of continued rain showers and lodging while in Pallekele. While in conversation with him, he discovered that my friend (a photographer) and I were on a writing assignment. I suggested the composition of a distinct article about him, while viewing his life and work from a different perspective. He was intrigued, and asked if I had a business card with me. I responded by saying that I didn’t, and he immediately jibed, “Aiy, card kudu da?” (this of course would only make sense to Sri Lankans).
Of course, there is a starkly different side to him as well. When he is silent, a multitude of thoughts pervade his mind. When a sombreness of sorts adorns his face, the thoughts consuming his mind often include the well-being of the country, the state of cricket in the country, and of society in general.
He is deeply disturbed by the lackadaisical nature adopted by the administrators, cricketers, fans and all stakeholders of the game in Sri Lanka, who are standing by the wayside as the sport is firmly propelled towards disrepute. Percy is of the view that the rapid changes in the game, such as those embraced within the Twenty 20 format, should be encouraged. However, they should not be entertained at the expense of the standard, quality and guidelines of the game. He asserts that compromises should not be allowed, for there is no saying what the end result might be. The commercial push is making it increasingly hard to maintain such morals in the sport any longer, for its lure and influence is existent and very real. A rocky road lies ahead, and the sport we love may be irrevocably changed, until there is nothing left of its former self that is recognisable.
Despite the burden of his worries, he puts them to rest when in the midst of others. He revels in the limelight, but only from the standpoint of the pride associated with representing the country; there is no personal gain to be had here. He is in his element when he dons the blue and yellow, with his trusty flag by his side.
Many believe he is remunerated well for wearing his heart on his sleeve, literally, and shepherding the collective voice of a country. This is not the case. Perhaps it is the love and affection he garners, which allows him to champion the cause of Sri Lankan cricket, and continue with this extremely unrewarding but most noble of professions.
Upon nudging him gently and prodding into the qualms in his mind and the palpable sorrow in his heart, he states that he has accepted nothing monetary besides from his sponsor and employer, ACL cables, and to a lesser degree from the cricket board of the country. He drew special attention to the various contributions of Mr.Manik Pereira of the ‘Pership Group’, who had sponsored portions of Percy’s trips in the past. He also made it a point to mention the role of the legend affectionately known as ‘Sid’, with a noticeable smile overcoming his pleasant face. Sidath Wettimuny, a revered human being and senior statesman of Sri Lankan cricket, personally financed Percy’s trips on numerous occasions.
That is an era Percy recalls most fondly, as loyalty, honesty and the willingness to help were still valued virtues. Such displays of tenderness and warmth are almost non-existent now, I gathered from the tone of voice he imparted. With the tight match allowance allotted to him, he manages his food and lodging when attending matches, both at home (out of Colombo) and abroad. For this he is forever grateful and thankful.
They provide just enough for him to sustain his passion, but nothing more. His services are indispensable and his presence boundary-side and in the stands is an expected and accepted norm. Still, the tycoons continue to accumulate, without ever even considering the possibility of easing the burden of this great servant of Sri Lankan cricket, so he may continue his life’s work without hindrance.
If this passion and commitment were extended to any other realm of life or sport, he would certainly be leading an extravagant lifestyle by now. But that is the judge of one’s character, of how one behaves and presents himself regardless of the circumstances that bind him. It is not the money that he finds alluring, it is the life-long chance he has received to wave our flag and be himself.
While having lunch one day with Percy Uncle (back in Colombo), he pulled out a few printed e-mails from a file he was carrying. He proceeded to tell me about the fantastic offer that Preity Zinta and Vivek Oberoi had approached him with, in writing. He stood to gain a substantial amount if he simply accepted their personal request to assume the role of official cheerleader for their franchise- Kings XI Punjab. I was pleasantly surprised to read their exchange of e-mails, in which Preity Zinta had lovingly addressed him thus: “My Dear Percy….I inquired after you. Sad I missed you, because I had to fly to Chandigarh urgently”.
Having declined their lucrative offer once, the stakes had been raised further and the two Bollywood celebrities had quoted considerably more in return for his services, the following year. Percy carefully explained how he has been waving the flag of his motherland for over 30 years, and how he was willing to forgo the magnificent opportunity laid out before him by the IPL franchise. He made it known that he wishes to continue with what he knows best and what brings him the most joy, even if the perks to be had doing so are negligible.
As arguably the longest standing fan and the foremost spokesperson for the cricketing audience in Sri Lanka, it makes absolute sense to pay heed to his wise words concerning the sport in this country, and its current compass bearing. The game is undergoing monumental changes as we speak, but the faith and resolve of the spectators is seemingly unwavering. There is much pride and pleasure that a connoisseur derives, in the savouring of a sport, that despite its legions of devotees still continues to retain an aura of mystery. Percy is emblematic of the continuation of this most wondrous sporting tradition.
A quote woven in typical ‘Percy fashion’ seemed apt in summing up his legacy thus far: “Percy is cricket crazy but he has no mercy for those cricketers, spectators and administrators who are lazy. Play fair, cheer the victor, honour the vanquished.”
ADDENDUM: I was a small part of the St. Aloysius College cheering squad in my younger schooldays at the Galle Esplanade when Percy and Royle Barthelot led the lot in cheering for nNoel edema, Anwar Jawath, Carlyel Rodrigo, Somapala and the Walles brotthers as they battled Mahinda or Richmond formidable foes). “Walles Patau — Goni Goni,” “Abdul Hamid —D um Dum. Dum,” Kavuda Raja — Aloysius Raja!” rang out loud and clear… THOSE WERE THE DAYS. So, Percy mastered his English at that school and its grounds. But his humour and reflections are quintessentially his.