14th May, 2021 9:14 am
A piece of sporting history is set to be made in Birmingham on 23 May, when two LGBTQ+ cricket teams face each other for the first time.
London-based Graces will take to the field against Birmingham Unicorns for a 40-over game at Weoley Hill Oval.
The match – supported by the England and Wales Cricket Board – represents the first time two LGBTQ+ cricket teams will play each other: not just in the UK, but anywhere in the world.
BBC Sport spoke to some of the key figures involved.
‘You’re completely free to be you’
For more than two decades, Graces were the world’s only inclusive cricket club.
Founded in 1996, the team provides a space for LGBTQ+ people to enjoy the sport while not having to hide who they are.
Not everyone was supportive – in 2000, the club received national media attention after complaints from the “horrified” family of WG Grace about using his name without asking them.
The club themselves responded by saying they were “pioneering”, just as Grace was – and have continued to grow since then.
“It is an atmosphere where you’re completely free to be you,” says chairman Leo Skyner.
“You have a passion for the sport, you have your identity, and it’s entirely non-judgemental and welcoming.
“It’s important that we’re playing good cricket, but equally, the social network and support is deeply important too.”
‘We’ve gone from just being an idea to having selection headaches’
Up until last year, Graces were the sport’s only LGBTQ+ team.
But then in Birmingham, at the height of the pandemic, cricket fan Lachlan Smith decided to form his own inclusive club – and Unicorns were born.
Smith says: “I’d played cricket for a number of years, and it just struck me one day: Why can’t there be an LGBT cricket team here in Birmingham?
“I thought there had to be enough people to put 11 players on the park and suddenly, we’ve gone from just being an idea to having selection headaches.
“That’s not really what I’d anticipated, but it’s a great position to be in.”
‘I couldn’t come out. I couldn’t even speak to anyone’
For Graces captain Manish Modi, the game against Unicorns is a significant moment.
Born into a cricket-mad family in India, Modi played at a semi-professional level where being open about his sexuality was not an option.
“I played cricket there while being in the closet,” he says.
“I couldn’t even speak to anyone, I couldn’t even come out. If you’d have said ‘I’m a gay man’, you’d never have got selected. You’d just have had to give up.”
It was only after moving to the UK and hearing about Graces that Modi felt able to reconcile his identities as a gay man and a cricket lover.
“Graces has supported me a lot, including when I came out to my father,” he says. “He’s my hero and has accepted me, and now I’m a proud gay man.
“This is what we do at the club, supporting people. We are just there for you.”
‘I’m going to be really proud walking out that day’
It’s not just the players looking forward to the match – so too is Rob Evans, one of the umpires.
“I came out quite late in life, and always felt I had two parts of my life that would never mix together,” Evans says.
“I wasn’t aware of any LGBTQ+ cricket clubs I could get involved with until I heard about Graces. Then I heard about Unicorns and thought: ‘Wow, this is amazing.’
“I get quite emotional thinking about this game, actually. We’ve got commemorative kit for the umpires, and I’m going to be really proud walking out there that day.”
‘I think things are changing for the better’
The match is getting plenty of support, including from the England and Wales Cricket Board.
“I was thrilled when I’d heard these teams had joined together to play each other,” says ECB communications manager Henry Cowen.
“We have the beginning of a community within cricket that can act as a home for people who maybe feel that a more traditional club that doesn’t have LGBTQ+ rights at its heart isn’t for them.
“So what Unicorns and Graces are doing aligns with what the ECB is trying to do in making cricket a more inclusive sport for as many people as possible.”
There is a question, though, as to why it has taken so long for a game such as this to happen.
In rugby, tournaments such as the Union Cup and the Bingham Cup bring together inclusive clubs from right around the world. Across sport generally, events such as the Gay Games and EuroGames have been providing LGBTQ+ athletes with a space to compete for years.
So is cricket behind the times?
“I’m not really sure why it’s taken so long to create another club,” Smith says.
“It feels as if people maybe missed out on an opportunity when they were younger to grow into a sport that felt like it was their home – but I think that’s changing for the better.
“The demand we’ve had demonstrates there is a thirst out there for the LGBTQ+ community to play cricket.”
Evans adds: “As an umpire, I want to help both these teams develop.
“So please, let’s not wait another 25 years for a third club to come along.”
Source: The LGBTQ+ cricket match making history – BBC Sport (May 2021)
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