ABU DHABI // As thousands of cricket fans gather to watch the Pakistan team take on New Zealand today in Abu Dhabi, one man in the crowd may be as big a celebrity as the players on the field: Chacha Cricket.
Chaudhry Abdul Jalil, 61, whose nickname means "Uncle Cricket" in Urdu, is considered the Pakistan team's mascot and most energetic supporter. His attendance is considered so crucial that the retiree is sponsored by the Pakistan Cricket Board, businesses and friends. "Chacha is a legend," said Emad Naqvi, a Pakistani supporter who travels the world to see the national team play. "He makes us proud to be Pakistani because no other team has anybody like this. England might have their Barmy Army, but we have a one-man army. The fact that he is sponsored shows he is getting the top-class treatment, deservedly."
Dressed in his trademark green shalwar kameez, usually carrying a flag donated by another fan and sporting a long, white beard, Mr Jalil will be leading cheers beginning at 3pm today when the Pakistan and New Zealand teams meet to decide who leaves the city with the one-day international cricket trophy. He has been watching international games for more than 40 years. "I was 19 when I first watched an international game," he said. The match was Pakistan against England and the year was 1969. Colin Cowdrey was the English captain, and Saeed Ahmed led Pakistan in Lahore Stadium. The match was a draw. "I paid five Pakistani rupees for the tickets and went with four friends. I enjoyed it very much."
In his lifetime, Mr Jalil has followed Pakistan's cricket team to countries including India, the UK, South Africa and Bangladesh. He also has a special connection with the UAE, having watched more than 100 matches in Sharjah. He also lived in the capital, working for Abu Dhabi Municipality for 25 years, until 1998, as an assistant foreman at a water-pumping station. "I have visited and lived in different countries and my message is to bring happiness to everyone," he said before last Friday's match. "But my heart is in Pakistan."
These days, during matches he dances with fans, signs autographs, cheers for Pakistan, welcomes the opposing team and is accosted by supporters eager to capture him on their cameras. One fan a few years ago was so drawn to Chacha Cricket, he wrote him a poem. Mr Jalil enjoyed playing in local tournaments as a young man, but he never dreamed of being part of the national team. "I am not a good player, I am a good cheerleader. I have been to about 400 international games, maybe more. I am respected and have fame in my own right," he said.
On Friday, when Pakistan lost to New Zealand by 64 runs, Chacha Cricket was welcomed by fans and drum-playing spectators roaring his name while he led chants of "Pakistan zindabad" (long live Pakistan) and "Welcome New Zealand". Syed Ahmed Masud, a 26-year-old banker in the capital, was watching that match at the stadium. "He's a very important part of the atmosphere and he brings life to Pakistani cricket," the Pakistani national said. "I miss him when he is not there. This marks the first time he has come [here] for ages.
"He has access to all of the different gates and goes from stand to stand to energise the crowds." The presence of Mr Jalil can overshadow the activity on the grounds, fans say, with spectators so engrossed with meeting the celebrity that they miss sixes and wickets. Umar Dhami, a businessman from Abu Dhabi, is planning to watch the match today and hopes to catch a glimpse of Chacha. "He brings enjoyment and he has good comments about how the team is at the moment," said the British Pakistani.
"Everybody can relate to him because he is a normal human being. I saw him from far away in London, several years ago. It put a smile on my face." Mr Jalil, whose home is in Sialkot, Punjab, was first sponsored as a fun, playful extension of the game, but he has become a spokesman for Pakistan during the South Asian country's turbulent political times. "My mission is threefold: I want to promote Pakistan, I want happiness to all people and I believe strongly in welfare," he said. "Cricket is something to enjoy; it is not a place for tension or fighting."
On March 3, he was just a half-mile away from Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore when gunmen attacked a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team on its way to play Pakistan. Six security officers died, as did two civilians, and seven members of the touring Sri Lankan party were wounded. "I saw the firing, I saw one of the Sri Lankan players," he said. "What those gunmen did was very bad. In Pakistan, the Sri Lankans were our guests and we didn't provide them with good security. That incident has caused too much damage."
Still visibly shaken by the shooting, he said he realises it may be a long time until international games are played in his homeland. "It's a very sad time for Pakistani cricket," he said. "All cricket lovers want it back but there are too many problems now." For the 850,000-strong Pakistani community in the UAE, second only to India's as the largest expatriate group, he has some advice. "All Pakistanis not living in Pakistan need to live by whichever country's law they are living in," he said. "And they should look after their families."
His family comprises his wife, Nasim, and five grown children. And much as he could not pick a favourite child, he declines to say which player on the current team he likes the most. But in the history of cricket, however, the decision is easy. "Imran Khan is definitely my favourite. Pakistan has won one World Cup, in 1992, and he was the captain. He is a good player under pressure," he said. "Every country needs to have an honest leader. Maybe we should have Imran Khan as president, he is honest, clean and well-educated."