In many ways, Jay Timmins typifies what inclusive clubs are all about.
For a variety of reasons, they never felt able to take part in sport before coming across the Birmingham Unicorns, but now they are slowly taking their first steps in cricket – and loving every minute.
Suffering from chronic pain, a condition they still have to deal with now, meant that it became difficult to take part in sport at school. Realising they identified as non-binary did not help either, with many sports’ traditional gender structure proving off-putting.
So when Lachlan Smith began the process of starting the Unicorns last year, Timmins was keen to get involved even if they could only contribute behind the scenes. Bit by bit though, a long process of adjusting to the physical demands of cricket meant they got involved in training.
Timmins got on the field last weekend in the Unicorns’ first ever game as a substitute fielder, and is set to be part of the 11 for tomorrow’s historic match against Graces, but by their own admission it was something of a fluke they started paying attention to cricket in the first place.
“It’s a bit depressing really, I kind of got into it as a displacement activity to stop refreshing live news blogs or Twitter, because there would be cricket happening and a live blog,” they explained.
“I was like ‘oh, this goes on for ages’, so I could keep refreshing it. At that point I didn’t understand it, but it was soothing and quite funny, and eventually I started to understand it and get invested, and start watching.
“It had been suggested to me by people who knew how into cricket I was just from reading articles – I would have the weirdest facts to hand – that I should go and try to play for a local club, but I didn’t want to. As an adult beginner, I didn’t feel very confident for one thing, and the other thing was that I didn’t really know whether I’d be able to.
“I’ve had issues with chronic pain and muscle weakness since I was in my early teens, so I’ve never really been able to do sport. I would get injured doing things like sitting in a cinema seat and yoga.
“I didn’t really want to waste people’s time by joining a club, and have people try and help me learn and then not be able to do it.
“I didn’t know whether I was even going to be able to bowl, and I didn’t know how batting was going to go either. I had to practice the movements and I started doing them with a badminton racquet. This was months before the first practice, and it wasn’t great to begin with, it was very painful.
“I was gradually teaching my body that this is actually fine, this is not bad, nothing terrible is going to happen here. With my condition, my body overreacts to new things, so I had to work up from a racquet to something heavier, and eventually I could do it with a bat, without any pain.
“It also helped that the Unicorns, from the first committee meetings on zoom, was going to be a mixed gender environment, which I’ve always felt a lot more comfortable in. That was a big plus for me when I was joining.
“That’s another thing that has been a bit of a barrier for me competing in team sports apart from being fundamentally physically unreliable: my discomfort in single sex spaces, which is how most team sports tend to be in my experience.
“I felt like the Unicorns might be more of a low-pressure environment, because it’s just friendly matches, there’d be other beginners, and there wouldn’t be any attention. That’s obviously been slightly different in practice.”
Indeed, tomorrow’s first ever match between two inclusive cricket clubs has had it’s fair share of attention.
There have been countless podcast appearances, television segments and written articles on the fixture, which will be live streamed with commentary tomorrow afternoon, with two rounds of publicity after the match was originally called off last month because of poor weather.
From Timmins’ point of view, as someone who wasn’t even sure if they would be able to play cricket a few months ago, the hype has plenty of potential to become a touch overwhelming.
While they are conscious of what the match could mean to many though, they are also looking forward to the occasion.
“I think it will be a really friendly, competitive environment,” Timmins reasoned.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I’m definitely still scared like I was coming on for our first match, because Graces are really good, but I’m kind of hoping that – batting at 11 – everyone does a good job and I’m not needed.
“Having conversations with people last month definitely made me look forward to actually being able to have that match, finally, more.
“When the BBC article came out, that was when it tipped and we were like ‘ok, people are interested in this as it turns out’. We should probably have seen it coming given how much cricket loves it’s history and firsts.
“It has been very surreal, I think that would be the main thing, the level of attention. There is a feeling of being part of something bigger in terms of potentially inspiring people to get involved, or start their own team where they are.
“The gap between the first and the second LGBT+ cricket team was quite large, and I don’t think it’s going to be that large between the second and the third.
“I feel part of something that’s got momentum, which is important. You can’t help but have impact when the profile of something is quite high, but it’s hard to think about in the context of me being part of it.
“I think about it a lot as like an abstract thing, like the idea that there’s a livestream and an actual commentator, and I’m going to be on it and I had to sign an ECB form to let them use video. You have to put that to the side, otherwise it’s quite overwhelming.
“Being part of something that has this kind of attention, I feel really happy to be there.
“We got asked by the person doing the commentary to provide a little blurb – when we started playing cricket, high scores, that kind of thing. I think for position, I put ‘just happy to be here’, and that’s kind of how I feel about all of this.”
The match against Graces will be the culmination of months of hard work behind the scenes to get the Unicorns up and running, and hopefully will only be the start of a long and storied future for the club.
It is already paying dividends for it’s members though, and Timmins is a prime example of that. They are already benefitting from the physical, mental and social aspects of being part of an inclusive cricket club.
“The thing I never expected is that cricket has actually been really good for my chronic pain in general,” they said.
“I guess it’s when you’re strengthening muscles, and I’m lucky to have a very good physiotherapist that I’ve been working with.
“He was like ‘this isn’t great at the moment, but we can teach my body how to do this’ in terms of managing pain. That got me thinking I could do it, I just needed to gradually build up to being able to do more.
“The first training session, I was smiling the whole time. I still probably smile quite a lot, just because catching a ball thrown back at me, and being able to do that most of the time, that was incredible.
“My body doing something I actually ask of it is really, really good. There are a lot of things that are just amazing, it’s just great.
“I’m just enjoying all of it really. I’m not the most outgoing person, I’m generally pretty unsociable, but it’s such a great group at the Unicorns that I feel incredibly confident around everyone. I’m probably a lot more cheerful and sociable with the group, it’s great to be part of it with everyone.
“It has sort of come at exactly the right time in my life.
“You look at when I started to get interested in cricket, and my health being the best it has probably been so that this is something that is actually within the realms of possibility, a lot of things have come together really well for me to end up in this situation, and I’m really happy about that.”
The extra confidence that has given Timmins has translated outside the Unicorns too.
They are finding that they are becoming more vocal in every day life about inclusion, and they believe that once the ball gets rolling on progressive policies and attitudes it automatically feeds into other aspects too.
“I’ve ended up having a lot of conversations about LGBT+ inclusion,” Timmins added.
“When you start from a starting point of inclusion, you are naturally inclusive in other ways as well.
“Take trans inclusion, given the media situation around trans participation in sport is pretty terrible at the moment we’ve done FAQs to say that we are explicitly trans inclusive because everyone should be able to play sport.
“I’ve talked to work colleagues that I’ve mentioned the Unicorns to about gendered language in my profession. It has sparked these conversations about inclusion about gender, about disability, about carers, there are different ways that you can try and create a space where as many people can participate as possible.
“I think of it like you focus on inclusion, and you automatically start thinking about these other aspects. No-one is just one thing. You always have multiple facets, and you don’t want to forget that someone is LGBT+, but there is also this other thing – whether that’s disability, race, they’re a carer or something else.
“You don’t want to end up feeling included because you’re gay, but feeling like you have to put aside another part of yourself. You automatically end up trying to build that in, which I think is a good thing.
“You say allies are welcome in part because it’s sincere, but the other aspect is so that people who are closeted wouldn’t have to out themselves. You also have people who just want to play in an environment that is explicitly inclusive – they’re not LGBT+, but they feel more comfortable in an environment that really prioritises inclusion.
“Inclusive clubs provide that where it might not be available to people.”
The historic match between the Birmingham Unicorns and Graces will be available to watch here.