On that sweltering summer day in Sialkot, the old man standing by the roadside in his patent shalwar kameez in bright green — the colour of the Pakistani flag — was the object of much curiosity among the endless stream of passersby.
Many stopped in their tracks to gawk, some hurried over to shake hands with him. After all, ‘Chacha Cricket’, as he is popularly known, is a celebrity of sorts.
Pakistan cricket’s most-recognisable cheerleader, Chaudhry Abdul Jalil — for that is his real name — is known to fans and cricketing legends alike; Geoffrey Boycott believes Chacha Cricket brings life to cricket crowds, Sunil Gavaskar says Pakistan is lucky to have him.
With me, Chacha is the epitome of civility. “Stuck in traffic, were you?” he asks politely. “I have been waiting for you for about 20 minutes. People kept walking over to talk to me.”
I mumble some apology as he leads my photographer colleague and me down the narrow streets of Sialkot, one after another, until we reach a single-storey house.
“It isn’t much but I am thankful for whatever I have,” Chacha says with a smile and invites us to sit down.
As I get comfortable on a sofa in his drawing room, my eyes roam over to the shelves that occupy one wall.
There are several portraits of Chacha with Pakistani and international cricketers; there is one of him with Inzamam-ul-Haq, another with Wasim Akram and a third with Sachin Tendulkar, to mention but a few.
Alongside is an array of shields and certificates awarded to him in recognition of his unstinted support for the national team.
I ask him the question that has been nagging me for days: What goaded him to dedicate his life to cheering for Pakistan and travel to all parts of the world in his quest?
As his story unravels, I cannot but marvel at his passion for the game, his loyalty towards the men in green, his zeal, his dedication. It is fascinating.
Chacha first came into the limelight during the Austral-Asia Cup in 1994 in the UAE, mainly on the back of his unique attire — the traditional kurta that later sported big corporate logos — and loud cheering for Pakistan.
But it was not until two years later that his face became instantly recognisable to the average Pakistani fan.
“Not many people know that I had been working in the United Arab Emirates until 1996 and it was a very decent job,” Chacha says.
This ended that year when he was approached by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to take over the mantle of the ‘official cheerleader’ for the national team. It was an offer too good to pass over.
“Syed Zulfiqar Ali Shah Bukhari, who was the PCB chairman then, called me a diehard fan and asked me to return to Pakistan. He promised to sponsor me so I could follow the Pakistan team at all home and away tours.”
Intrigued by the unexpected offer, Chahcha says he discussed the issue with Wasim Akram and Moin Khan, two of the star cricketers he had befriended by then.
“They were very excited and expected me to get employed by Pakistan International Airlines, which was the department they played for,” he recalls.
Chacha returned to Pakistan in 1998 but unfortunately for him, political developments the same year threw a spanner in the works; what was promised as a paid cheerleading job suddenly vanished.
The Pakistan People’s Party government was replaced by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. “The change in government led to the changes in the cricket board and Bukhari had to step down,” he says.
The newly-appointed PCB secretary Waqar Ahmed did not think having an official cheerleader was a feasible idea and the deal was called off, and so was the PIA employment offer.
Chacha, who had just left behind a stable job with good pay in the UAE, was left high and dry.
Rubbing salt into the wound was the World Cup in England the next year; Chacha says not only did Waqar Ahmed refuse to issue an official letter recommending his case for a visa, but the PCB also refused to sponsor him “although it sponsored dozens of people”.
Chacha decided to take the bull by the horns.
“I went to the British embassy to fill the visa application form. I had no bank balance, property or income tax statement to file along with my application.
“All I had were pictures of me wearing my famous attire and waving the Pakistani flag at famous cricket stadiums in different parts of the world.”
That did the trick: the photos impressed a senior official in the embassy who decided to grant him a visa without an interview or checking of any documents. “I got the visa for England in one hour,” he recalls happily.
A friend, Mir Dawood, also helped him by sponsoring his flight tickets and meeting some of the expenses.
For the second time in World Cup history, Pakistan reached the final, this time under a team led by Wasim Akram. They lost to the Australians by eight wickets, but Chacha’s memories are not all sad.
On June 21, 1999, a day after his hopes were dashed at Lord’s, he says a UK newspaper published a photo of him. “They said I was the number-one World Cup find,” he reminisces.
Today, Chacha has no regrets over leaving a cushy job in the Gulf.
“I am very happy about living in Pakistan,” he says. “People ask me how I stay happy after losing so much. I tell them that anyone who has a clean heart stays happy in all situations.”
Video: Ibtisam Zahid Khanzada/Kamran Nafees
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 17th, 2016