Tomorrow a history-making match will be taking place as Graces and the Birmingham Unicorns face off in the first ever cricket match between two LGBT+ inclusive clubs.
While the Unicorns are the newcomers on the block, with Lachlan Smith making the first moves to start the club last year, Graces have gone for decades without another side to face.
It really does feel like two teams at the opposite ends of their journey. The Unicorns are gearing up for their first ever match, while Graces – named after the England legend WG Grace when they were founded in 1996 – won the Middlesex and Essex Invitational League in 2019 and were recently able to field two sides on the same day for the first time.
The elder statesmen of LGBT+ cricket have not gone without their challenges though. They were forced to pull out of competitive cricket around a decade beforehand after struggling with player availability, only returning to action two years ago when they claimed the title at the first time of asking.
In between, they were still active, playing friendlies without the pressure of needing 11 players every single weekend. One of those who was a regular on the teamsheet was Manish Modi, who calls the club the best he has ever played for.
Coming from someone who played alongside future international wicket keeper Parthiv Patel in their native India, that is high praise. Now that there is another inclusive side for Graces to face, Modi cannot wait for what he hopes will be a celebration come the toss.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Modi, who has stepped back from Graces captain to vice-captain this year, enthused.
“Lachlan is from Adelaide in Australia, and I’ve known him for a year and-a-half. When Sky Sports were covering Rainbow weekend, his article went on the day before mine. Since then I’ve known him, and last year he contacted us with an idea to start up another cricket club in the Midlands.
“We have given him ideas of how to start the club, and I get their emails – I trained with them at the start of this week at Warwickshire. I’m really excited for them, because they love their cricket. Lachlan has been working really hard since before Christmas, so I’m looking forward to playing against them.
“It will feel so special. It will be great fun, I can’t wait to see what the banter is like. We’re not abusive or anything, but I think it will be great fun on the day.
“On Saturdays I play for another club in Bedfordshire and they heard our episode of the BBC LGBT+ Sport podcast. I hadn’t been out to them, because to me it was all about cricket. Nobody had ever asked me, but they know I’m a gay man and I got some lovely messages after the podcast went out saying they are going to come and support us. They will be driving all the way from Bedfordshire to Birmingham just to come and support us, which is amazing.
“I think it will have a positive impact. This is happening after 25 years, we’re going to have a derby every year. We’re looking forward to it.
“It’s going to be a very friendly match, I can assure you of that. It will be a fun day – we have lots of players coming who aren’t going to play, who are just going to support us on the day, and there will be lots of other people from LGBT+ organisations coming to support us, so I think it’s going to feel like a festival.”
Talk of the historic match raises an obvious question – why has it taken 25 years for another LGBT+ cricket team to arrive on the scene?
Really, there is no good answer to it. Modi has come across other LGBT+ players while in action for Graces, so he does not think a lack of numbers is really the issue.
Instead, he puts it down to someone being willing to take on the organisation that comes with starting a new club.
“There are gay players out there playing for local clubs, but somebody just didn’t have the idea to start another club,” he insisted.
“I think that’s the only reason. Cricket is still there. Some people say that cricket isn’t a big sport, but it is, whenever we play against other teams we know that they have gay cricketers in their team as well. There hasn’t been a lack of players, because we have come across them, it has just been about getting them together.
“Another thing I would like to see is a gay cricket club in Australia, or in a different country. We are going to tour there, but we will be playing straight teams. It would be lovely if every two years we could have a Gay Ashes, alternating between playing in England and Australia like it normally is.
“It’s the same problem over there – there are gay cricketers there, but nobody has gotten them together. It would be great if they did.
“I don’t know why it has taken 25 years, but hopefully it won’t take that long for another to start. I’m quite an optimistic person, so hopefully there will be a third club in the next few years.
“Very often we think about it that in the next couple of years there might be a club in Manchester, maybe somewhere in the south of England or somewhere else. Hopefully that will happen somewhere, because it would be great.”
International tours are something that are Graces are already familiar with, with Modi having played in Spain, Malta, Portugal and Greece – with a planned trip to Italy being cancelled twice now because of the pandemic – through the club.
Conversations are underway around the Gay Ashes series that Modi would love to see, but there are obvious areas where it will not be so easy to go to for matches.
Cricket is unique in that in several of the highest profile nations that play the sport, many at the most recent World Cup for example, being gay is illegal. In others, gay marriage still feels a long way off, so general equality for LGBT+ people has a way to go before even thinking about a presence in sport.
Modi, though, believes sport can play it’s part, especially in those countries where cricket transcends into everyday culture.
“Rainbow Laces would be one of the biggest things,” Modi said.
“Every single year, I wear rainbow laces on my shoes because that sends out a positive message. In India, I couldn’t tell anyone I am a gay man. I would have never been picked in cricket if I had come out. I would have had to just give up on that, so things like Rainbow Laces sends out a positive message that there is a place for you in cricket, and hopefully that message goes out all over the world.
“Virat Kohli’s wife is a Bollywood actress, and in Bollywood being gay is okay, there’s no problem with that. She will hopefully inspire Virat Kohli.
“Indian cricket has been homophobic, but if someone like Virat Kohli wore Rainbow Laces, that would be a great thing. Countries like South Africa too, New Zealand, the West Indies – it would be a big thing if Rainbow Laces made it to the West Indies. We know what happened with Shannon Gabriel and Joe Root.
“Personally, I believe sport brings everybody together. When we talk about India and Pakistan, cricket brings the country together, so hopefully Rainbow Laces or cricket matches like us against the Birmingham Unicorns can bring people together.
“Cricket is still a gentleman’s sport. I have been playing cricket for Graces for 13 years, and we have not had any homophobic experiences. That is a beautiful thing.
“In different countries which have different cultures and different traditions, if a game like ours happens it would send out a big message.
“India is a powerhouse of cricket now, so if LGBT+ organisations out there can do something cricket is a religion for Indian cricket, so there must be gay cricketers out there who are in the closet and playing for a team.”
Many people speak of feeling as though they are unable to fulfil their potential because of the burden of keeping their sexuality or identity secret, but when Modi was on the pitch that never felt like a problem. Cricket, though, is also a different sport in the amount of down time the players have while waiting to bat, at teas or before or after matches, so that was where his difficulty came.
Despite playing to a reasonably high level in India, Modi was not out as a gay man until he moved to England in the mid-00s. A couple of years later he upped sticks and went to London, which is when he joined Graces.
The club has had a profound impact on his life. He has come across the occasional negative story from teammates, but his own experience is an overwhelmingly positive one.
“Cricket was still there, because playing cricket for me is like a religion,” he reasoned.
“Every time I crossed the rope, I was just playing cricket. When you switch off from cricket though, or sometimes if someone asked you questions on the ground – where’s your girlfriend? Where’s your wife? – that’s when it affects you.
“That’s when you have that fear. I wanted to tell them, but I couldn’t. It happens in England too, I was talking to one of our new players a few weeks ago who told me he got dropped from his university team because he messaged his captain to say he was a gay man.
“His captain never even bothered to reply, he was just dropped. Things like that happen, but that’s the society we want to change. We are setting the example that anybody can come and play for us.
“Graces has allowed me to be a good cricketer, but a better person as well. They have given me the confidence to be a proud gay man, so it has been a great journey.
“I came out to my father several years ago. That would have never happened if I wasn’t playing for Graces. It’s not like the guys would come and ask me if I wanted them to help me come out, they let me take my own time and I knew they were there if I needed to speak to them.
“We still have players who are gay, but in the closet, and we respect that. It comes down to individual families. My father is my hero, I came out to him and he accepted me, so I feel very lucky and privileged that I was born in that kind of family. Not everyone has that advantage, but at Graces we give them support to be themselves and speak to people.
“This year we have a transgender player as well, and we have welcomed them and they have been doing really well.
“I’m very proud that I play for the club and I can be myself. We have good fun and good banter, and I’m happy this has happened in my lifetime.”
This weekend’s historic match against the Birmingham Unicorns is a sign of progress being made.
It is a triumph of sorts for Graces, who will now finally have other LGBT+ teams to play while still hoping for more clubs to pop up and join the LGBT+ cricketing family.
Modi, though, is a self-professed dreamer, and has many more plans he would love to see come to fruition in the coming years for a Graces team that appears to be going from strength to strength right now.
“Over the years, we have had players coming in and leaving, coming in and leaving,” Modi recalled.
“When I took up the captaincy a few years ago, my aim was that everybody who came in would feel welcome from day one. That’s what I had when I joined Graces, so we looked after the new players and at the same time we looked after the seasoned players as well.
“This year, it has been really strong – we already have four or five new players, and they are all quite experienced, so people are getting to know about us more over the last two or three years.
“Previously, everybody I spoke to asked if there was LGBT+ cricket out there, and people were surprised to find us. Now, the message is getting across. You can send us an email, come down and watch us or play for us, we are here for you.
“We go out and look for players, but the players are coming to us – they contact us on social media and things like that.
“I think it would be great if Graces could have a ladies’ team as well one day. We haven’t had many enquiries from ladies, and we would love that. I’m one of the organisers for a group call Gay Indian Network, and there are girls there who say they played cricket years ago at school, and I try to tell them to come along. Somebody has to start that like we did at Graces.
“I’m a big dreamer, and I’m a very optimistic person as well. There are a lot of things you can look forward to someday. We would love to have our own home ground, because right now we are affiliated with Broxbourne Cricket Club.
“They are great with us, they have a lovely bar, the ground and the pitch – everything is great, it’s what you dream of playing on – but if we could have a place that was Graces’ that would be great.”