England has its ‘Barmy Army’. The Indians have a ‘Bharat Army’ and a ‘Swami Army’. The Australians, the Pakistanis and the New Zealanders too have their own support groups. But the Sri Lankans hardly need one; for they have a ‘one-man-cheering-squad’ in Percy Abeysekara!
Abeysekara is, at present, the best known cheerleader in the world of cricket. An octogenarian, he has watched — and cheered at — some of the most significant matches hosted by the island since the 1940s. He is now a part of every Sri Lankan touring party too.
A Test match or a limited-overs international on the islands can’t be imagined without the scenic grounds, the light Sinhala music and the sight of Abeysekara doing the rounds of the stands with the Sri Lankan flag in hand. He is a sporting legend, if ever there was one.
Abeysekara’s verses, songs and witticisms can draw laughter, and rage, depending on whose side you are on. He has mastered the art of getting under the opposition’s skin, using humour as a weapon. With him in the stands, the Sri Lankan players hardly ever need to ‘sledge’.
Ravi Shastri, the coach of the Indian team now taking on the ‘Lions’ in their own den, has been barracked by ‘Uncle Percy’ on many an occasion in the past. During one series, when the Sri Lankans were driven to the ropes, Shastri is said to have told the cheerleader, “Uncle, drink some arrack. Take care of your throat. The Lankans need it more than you do!”
During an Australia-Sri Lanka Test match at the Sinhalese Cricket Club, David Boon had to see off a couple of overs before lunch as he walked out to bat. Abeysekara, in his typical sing-song way recited the following verse within his earshot: “David Boon, you Tasmanian goon; come back soon, before noon.”
Boon soon got out. What followed was a scene right out of a Charlie Chaplin clip. The irate batsman stomped into the pavilion, cursing and looking for Abeysekara. He saw his antagonist — displaying a big smile — and chased him. Luckily for ‘Uncle Percy’, Boon tripped over, fell and let him escape, even as the crowd around the dressing rooms had a hearty laugh.
Once, after a net session, Russel Arnold — a commentator now who, during his playing days, never did justice to his batting talent — told Abeysekara that he had become boring. “Yes,” replied ‘Uncle Percy’, “I have become boring, son, because you are not scoring!”
Abeysekara’s chants were said to have had a mesmeric effect on India’s batting prodigy, Mohammad Azharuddin in the India-Sri Lanka series of 1985. After a brilliant debut series against England, ‘Azza’ hardly scored any runs against the Lankans, in a series that India lost. Azharuddin, therefore, is said to have avoided ‘Uncle Percy’ like the plague in that series. He scored five Test hundreds against the islanders later in his career, though.
The Azharuddin incident reminds one of a cricket fanatic nicknamed ‘Pau’, a Parsi gentleman who frequented the Cricket Club of India in the 1960s. Being wished ‘Good morning’ by him was thought to be a bad omen, be it in the local Kanga League or in the Ranji Trophy matches played at Brabourne Stadium. Players who saw him at the club would hide in the dressing room to avoid being wished by him.
The story goes, perhaps apocryphal, of ‘Pau’ wishing Norman O’Neill, at the behest of an Indian official, at the start of the second Test at the Brabourne Stadium in 1964. O’Neill did not bat in both the innings due to a bad bout of food poisoning in that match. ‘Pau’, therefore, was said to be one of the ‘unheralded’ heroes of that two-wicket win!
Cricket’s original ‘heckler’ however, as is expected, came from Australia. A man named Stephen Harold Gascoigne, who was nicknamed ‘Yabba’. He patronised the famous ‘Hill’ at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the early 1900s and was known for his witticisms and insults, in a voice that ‘probably shook the trees around the ground’. There were those like Douglas Jardine who were affected by his barracking, but a few others took the abuses in their stride and even gave it back to him, often in equal measure.
During the ‘Bodyline Series’, Jardine, fielding near the ‘Hill’, swatted away a few flies that were bothering him. ‘Yabba’ said, “Hey, leave our flies alone. They are the only friends you have here.” On another occasion, when Pataudi Sr fielded there, ‘Yabba’ asked, “Gandhi! Where’s your goat?” Pataudi is said to have turned around, looked for ‘Yabba’ and said, “I’m afraid, it’s somewhere in the crowd!”
England’s most prolific batsman between the two wars, Patsy Hendren once dropped a difficult catch, in a Test match, right in front of the notorious ‘Hill’. As expected, somebody (‘Yabba’ in all probability) shouted, “Get a bag, Hendren. Yer should have taken that in yer mug!” Hendren replied, “I would have, if my mouth was as big as yours, mate!”
Some of the most creative lines in cricketing folklore are attributed to ‘Yabba’. Once when an English batsman couldn’t get bat to ball, he shouted, “Send ‘im down a piano. Let’s see if ‘e can play that!” On another occasion, when a batsman was beaten a few times, and had the habit of adjusting his ‘box’ before taking his stance, he said, “Those are the only balls you have touched all day!”
The SCG ‘Hill’ was called ‘Yabba’s Hill’ in honour of Gascoigne, who died in January 1942. After the ‘Hill’ was demolished to make way for the ‘Victor Trumper Stand’ in 2007, a bronze statue of cricket’s best known ‘heckler’ was installed there.
In terms of enjoying a full day’s cricket, nobody could perhaps match the inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands. Till a couple of decades ago, the crowds in the West Indies — with their musical groups, their colourful clothing and various alcoholic concoctions in hand — would match the brilliant brand of cricket that the men from the islands played. Their funny one-liners were devoid of malice and their guffawing, inoffensive.
In a 1975 World Cup match against the Aussies, Alvin Kallicharran went bellicose, scoring 35 runs off ten Dennis Lillee deliveries. Max Walker at fine-leg was a mere spectator as Kallicharran’s shots sailed over him for six. Amidst the dancing and the jollity, one West Indian wag said, “Hey Walker, why don’t you bowl a bouncer at Kalli, maan?” Walker replied, “I bowl bouncers only to recognised batsmen.” Peeved Kallicharran fans pelted him with grapes for the next half hour!
When Ajit Wadekar’s team played in the West Indies, in 1971, as Eknath Solkar waited for a skier to land in his ‘safe’ hands, a Caribbean wag is said to have shouted, “Hey Solkar! You can have my sister if you drop the catch!” After the catch was taken, Wadekar inquired if Solkar had heard the ‘offer’ and had thought of dropping the catch. “Oh yes,” replied Solkar, tongue-in-cheek. “I heard, but couldn’t see the sister!”
The West Indies’ most famous cheerleader was a man named Labon Kenneth Blackburn Leeweltine Buckonon Benjamin, better known as ‘Gravy'. He did head spins, gyrated to music and danced in the stands. Between 1988 and 2000, cricket in Antigua wasn’t cricket without him. Antiguans said that he was as famous as Viv Richards and Ambrose on the island.
Gravy danced to the music of DJ Chickie. The latter is credited with pioneering ‘music-between-overs’. When Richards (Chickie’s class-mate) scored a double-quick hundred against England, he spun the gypsy track, “Captain, the Ship is Sinking” to taunt David Gower. The crowd, including English fans and media men, were so impressed that they gave Chickie a standing ovation for his sense of timing.
Modern cricket, and especially the T20 version of the game, has created some crazy super-fans throughout the cricket playing world. Sudhir Kumar — the Sachin fan, Larry Leprechaun from Ireland, Shoaib Al Bokhari from Bangladesh, ‘Chacha’ Chaudhry Abdul Jalil and Mohammad Basheer Bozai from Pakistan etc. are easily recognised at international matches, thanks to live cricket coverage. There is little doubt that these are colourful characters. But, the question remains: Are they entertainers?
Cheerleaders have been a part of cricket’s entertainment for more than a century. They bring in cheer and humour to the game, which at times can get lacklustre and one-dimensional. Therefore, it is time the various boards promote their ilk, set up prizes for the best entertainer, best costume and the funniest banner etc. Cricket badly needs characters like ‘Yabba’ ‘Gravy’ and of course, Abeysekara.
Groucho Marx, the master of quick wit, was once watching a Test match at Lord’s and patiently sat through the first hour of play. At the break for drinks, he turned around to his companion and asked, “When will the game begin?”
The author is a caricaturist, a sportswriter and a former fast bowler. An ex-sports administrator, he is now a mental toughness trainer.