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“For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.” This line was written by Grantland Rice, the American sports writer but has been Percy Abeysekera’s lifestory over 18 years; ever since he watched Arjuna Ranatunga’s side win the 1996 World Cup title.
Since that glorious night, Percy, the most famous non-playing Sri Lankan at a cricket ground, has suffered heartbreaks at Bridgetown, Lord’s, Wankhede and Colombo as his team lost four of four finals at World Cups — 50 and 20 over cricket. But after his side broke the jinx by beating India in the final of the World T20 on Sunday, Percy had this to say: “Winning is not the only thing, it is everything.”
Effervescent despite being just short of an octogenarian, Sri Lankan’s most devout cheerleader has travelled great distances to wave the Lion Flag and cheer the cricketers (or berate them in equal measure) with his sharp wit and sharper tongue, which is flavoured with a rhymester’s way with words.
But when at Mirpur, after Sri Lanka had lost three wickets on a slow pitch in their chase of 131, Percy once again felt the familiar feeling of anxiety. It rose within him.
1000 and counting
For someone who claims to have watched over a thousand matches live since well before the country was awarded Test status and has experienced every high and low of Sri Lankan cricket, Percy, 77, was unusually tense on Sunday evening. As the steady drizzle began one hour before the game, he was hoping that the rains don’t wash away a golden opportunity.
Percy knew that this was perhaps one of his last trips outside Sri Lanka to support the team. His travels have been limited because he needs to be by the side of Padmini, his eldest sister who is now 90. “I cannot leave her side for too long. If Sri Lanka hadn’t beaten India last night, I don’t think I would have been at a cricket ground when ‘our boys’ won a world title again,” Percy says, matter-of-factly. “I was praying that we lifted the trophy because it was my best chance to see them win. After losing in the final on four occasions, another loss would have been shattering.”
The grand old man of Lankan cricket could make the trip to Bangladesh only after he found a home nurse at a care centre to look after his sister, a lady who has inspired him tremendously. It was Padmini in fact who bought him his first cricket book, sometime in the 1940s.
“Now, when I go back home my sister will be happy that I could make the trip to Mirpur. Sri Lanka doesn’t win a World Cup trophy every other day just like everday is not a Sunday,” Percy said.
On Sunday, the mood at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium was similar to what one would witness at the P Sara Oval, Galle or the Sinhalese Cricket Club. At least 3,000 supporters had flown in for a day from Colombo, paying upwards of SLR 1 lakh for a package tour. “The support for our team last night was fantastic. I felt that we would win,” he says, before sparing a thought for the losing finalists. “The Indian team are our good friends. The saying goes ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ but I think the Sri Lankans have taken it too seriously in the past. The boys, especially Mahela and Sanga, deserved to be called champions. And I think I deserved to see another Sri Lankan team win a World Cup title.”
So what are his plans now that Sri Lanka have won the World Cup? “I’m flying back to Colombo today itself so I will be there to welcome the team home. There was a big party on the streets after the team won the Asia Cup. But this time it will be the biggest party in a long, long time.”
And while his dream of seeing Sri Lanka win another world title has been fulfilled, Percy insists his hunger to watch cricket is insatiable. “Till I can walk, I will be at stadiums cheering the boys and waving the Sri Lankan flag.”