Graces Cricket Club are no strangers to making history and are preparing to break a new barrier when they take the field in the first meeting between two LGBTQ+ cricket clubs anywhere in the world.
Founded in 1996, Graces were the only LGBTQ+ cricket club until the Birmingham Unicorns were established last year and the pair are set to meet each other in a one-off friendly match supported by the England and Wales Cricket Board.
The club has already received the attention of the national media, back in 2000, when they were criticised by a member of WG Grace’s family for using his name to promote their club.
“It was very interesting to see the Grace family reacting negatively to us using their name,” Chris Sherwood, who manages the club media told the PA news agency.
“I wasn’t a member of the club at the time but from what I understand it’s actually worked out very well for us because it got a lot of press coverage and of course they have no power to stop us from using it so it was an interesting curiosity.”
Graces has been hailed by its members for providing a safe and inclusive space for people to enjoy playing cricket without having to hide who they are and a place for them to be entirely comfortable.
In a sport which is constantly searching to attract new audiences, as evidenced by the launch of The Hundred this summer, Graces has, for many of it’s members been the only reason they have kept engaged with the sport.
“I joined Graces Cricket Club about eight years ago and I’d only just come out of the closet and I’d stopped playing cricket and I was quite keen to play again but I didn’t feel comfortable going into a standard cricket club and having to come out,” Sherwood said.
“You come out once and you spend the rest of your life coming out wherever you go and I was concerned about that and then I stumbled on Graces Cricket Club.”
For Sherwood, like others at Graces, his cricketing journey has not always been straightforward.
“Where we do see homophobia is online, and we did a Facebook campaign raising awareness about the club a couple of years ago and experienced a lot of derisory comments,” he added.
“‘Oh haha can you imagine their run up, can you imagine how they throw’ those kinds of things.
“I was playing for another cricket team a couple of seasons ago, they were short of players. I didn’t come out to anyone, only the person who had asked me to play knew, and I was in the bar afterwards and I ordered a round of half-pints and the barman was like ‘don’t do half-pints mate’ and I said ‘oh well we’re all driving so we need half-pints’ and he said ‘oh I’ll have to take your picture and put it on the gay wall’ and it was a very awkward moment because this was explicit homophobia.
“Thankfully the people around me, who didn’t know I was gay, didn’t engage with that, they didn’t laugh it was an awkward moment.
“But then I had to make a choice – do I then come out to all these people I’ve just played with? Do I say something? Make a scene? And that’s the thing that gay people in other clubs experience all the time, is casual homophobia and that’s what makes it uncomfortable for us. Again, it’s part of our role as a club is to educate people about that.”
Birmingham Unicorns were founded in 2020 by cricket fan Lachlan Smith, in unlikely circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic, and will host Graces in Birmingham on June 13 for the historic match at the Weoley Hill Oval, after the original fixture on May 23 was washed out.
“The match against the Birmingham Unicorns is a big moment for us, it’s the first all-gay cricket match and for us it’s about community and it’s about visibility and it’s part of the reason that we exist as a club and one of the roles we have is to counter stereotypes,” Sherwood said.
“Gay people, and gay men in particular, in sport is not something that people easily accept and I think the match is a great way for us as a community to demonstrate that we’re talented sportsmen as well as other things.”
For Manish Modi who had played semi-professional, a move from his native India to England and discovery of Graces gave him the confidence to come out to his family.
“I was born and bred in India, I played semi-pro cricket in India in a city called Ahmedabad,” Modi explained.
“I was contracted with the Bank of India. The journey was – I was very much in the closet back home because I couldn’t come out, if I would have come out there I would have never got selected, so it was like ‘yes I know I was gay but I couldn’t do anything about it’.
“Then I move to the UK on a work permit and for a better career and I started playing for Hemel Hempstead in a top division, then I moved to London in 2007.”
Modi revealed he was introduced to the club by an ex-boyfriend who had no interest in cricket or sport, but he was invited to their indoor net sessions and has never looked back.
“Genuinely speaking it made me feel like I’ve got a space here, I’ve got a place where I can be myself and it gave me the confidence to be myself.
“I’m a proud gay man now. I came out to my family because of them, because they gave me all the confidence that you can be yourself and proud.
“It’s actually the best cricket club I’ve ever played for, I’ve been playing cricket since I was aged five.
“Graces not only made me a better player, looking up to my senior players, but made me a better person as well.”