The summer of 2021 saw history made in cricket as the first ever match between two inclusive clubs took place – and the effects of that day are still being felt now.
Steve Gillies was one of the players lining up for the Birmingham Unicorns against London outfit Graces, who for two decades had been what was believed to be the only inclusive cricket team in the world. Now, Gillies is looking to establish the third in the UK in West Yorkshire with Mark Shaw.
He has been in close contact with Unicorns founder Lachlan Smith, who undertook a similar project two years ago to start the Birmingham club, ever since both were featured by Sky Sports in the summer of 2019.
There is pre-existing knowledge, then, for Gillies to tap into in his attempts to build a new club in and around Leeds, and so far the response he’s had has been encouraging.
“I’ve known Lachlan for quite a while actually, just through social media,” Gillies explained.
“Obviously Lachlan went on to form the Unicorns, so I was very lucky. I definitely wanted in on that very first game between them and Graces, and I was lucky enough that they had me.
“I wanted to get down a couple of times this summer as well, but I think it rained every time I went this year so they started to see me as a bit of a curse.
“Basically what Lachlan has done, what everybody in that Unicorns set-up has done and achieved in the last 18 months to two years, is why this is starting. Without them this very much wouldn’t even be on the periphery to set up, so we owe a lot to them, definitely.
“Lachlan shared some of his data and questions, so our survey is almost word for word, very similar to the one the Unicorns used. We got a third of the number of total responses that they got in the first 24 hours, which is great, but it’s dropped off since then so we’re hoping to continue to push it.
“It’s obviously only been a week or two, and it’s probably going to stay up until New Year time. We’re just going to keep on spamming the old tweet links, and hopefully we can get some interest.
“I think that the interest is there, it’s just a case of making sure that survey gets seen. So it’s going down quite well, but we could do with some more engagement for sure.
“We wanted to get this rolling a couple of months ago, around October time, mainly to sort of ‘cash in’ on freshers. There are quite a few universities in Leeds and the local area, and I know when I was a student I signed up for everything when I first joined uni. I think in my first year I was in about eight societies and never went to any of them.
“That was the original plan, but things get in the way and it was just a case of having a week off work and saying ‘right, let’s get this going’.
“I think I’ll be happy if we play at all next summer. I certainly don’t think we’ll be getting anything until around June or July, just knowing how long these things can take to set up.
“We are early enough to be proven wrong in terms of timescale, but I think late April or May may be a bit of a rush. If we can get one game next summer I would consider that job done to be honest, so fingers crossed we can get everything rolling in the right direction for then.”
A celebration of cricket
Seeing what Smith achieved with the Unicorns, and being involved in that historic match against Graces, really did lay the groundwork for more teams to follow suit.
There was media coverage in major national outlets and podcasts, and there was a live stream of the match complete with commentary from an established voice in Bob Ballard.
That visibility was crucial to inspire people who could not physically make it to the ground, but for the likes of Gillies who was there in person it proved to be incredibly inspirational.
“It was amazing to be involved in that, with the atmosphere and all the hype,” he recalled.
“For somebody who’s played senior club cricket for about 10 years now, I’ve never been involved in a game with that many spectators, with a stream and commentary and all of that stuff.
“Everything about it, just the whole weekend was just amazing. I’ve never played a game with an atmosphere like it, it was fantastic. Everything just felt right, that was what it should be about. That atmosphere and those surroundings are what I want to be in and to help spread.
“I remember my friend came down to see that game, and partway through the day he just sort of grabbed me to one side and asked if I thought we could get one of these going in Leeds.
“That was basically the starting point, literally from that first game, and we are now here however many months down the line. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if you build it, they’ll come – but you need someone to build it.
“I’m quite lucky, I play club cricket regularly. I’m in a team where I get on with everybody, and I’m really happy there, so I could continue just as I am playing league cricket on a Saturday and making the odd trip down to play for the Unicorns, but seeing how many people who play for the Unicorns have never played cricket before, and now it’s part of their lives, they can’t just carry on without it.
“We don’t have that here in West Yorkshire. It’s all right me saying I’m happy doing what I’m doing, but we could have so many more people who love the game but that just don’t know that they can get involved. Yorkshire is such a big cricket area, it just makes sense to me. There must be enough interest, there must be enough queer people to get a team like that running in the Leeds area.
“I’m fairly sure that a couple of years ago nobody knew it was even a thing. Now we’ve got two teams, which is great because it means that they can play each other. Seeing that there is an interest means that more and more teams are going to start springing up over the next few years hopefully.
“Local boards are going to be on board with it, knowing how much Warwickshire were involved with the Unicorns, and I’ve had initial positives coming out of Yorkshire as well. Everybody wants to support it and everybody wants to grow the game and have that inclusive set-up, it’s just that before I feel like people didn’t realise it could be done.
“If you look at rugby, which is obviously a great example of how inclusive teams have just sky-rocketed, I remember going back five or 10 years ago there was nowhere near the amount of teams as there are now. There seems to be a new one setting up every month, which is great, which is fantastic.
“I think now that it’s been done in cricket, it’s been proven it can work. I imagine that’s why there hasn’t been a team here before – nobody thought that it was worth doing until now. Now we know that it is worth doing, so let’s do it.”
Setting an example
English cricket’s issues with diversity have been well-documented over the last year or so, but when it comes to LGBTQIA+ inclusion there are some encouraging signs.
Rainbow Laces is prominently featured every summer at this point, former England captain Joe Root could be heard defending LGBTQIA+ identities on the pitch in 2019 and back in February 2011 international player Steven Davies came out as gay – although no active men’s professional has followed suit since.
Of course, at a more grassroots level the likes of the Unicorns, Graces, and even Gillies himself provides that representation, and he knows first-hand the impact that can have.
“I was 16 or so when Steven Davies came out, which was a massive deal to have this England international making those sort of statements,” Gillies reasoned.
“I was just like, ‘wow, okay, this guy’s out there living the dream playing for England and is happily coming out and being openly gay’, and I think that was a big, big watershed moment for the men’s game, and it’s just been rolling since then.
“Then you’ve got the Root incident, which is obviously something which was a massive positive. It was the fact that it happened during the game that made it so powerful.
“This was the England captain at the time, he’s certainly England’s best batsman of this generation and there are all sorts of debates where he could be up there for England’s best batsman of all time, and he was the poster boy of English test cricket at the time. He was reacting in the heat of the contest to just go ‘no, that’s not okay, you can’t say that’ – it wasn’t like he was reading off of a card in a press conference. It wasn’t a case of ‘here’s what we’ve given you to say, make sure you say it’, it was 100% genuine.
“That won a lot of people over. I have queer friends who have no idea about cricket, couldn’t give a toss about it, but in the aftermath of that incident I was getting people who had no interest in cricket before asking me about the Joe Root thing.
“Allies like that are massive. If you’re a teenager who’s maybe questioning, and a little bit more worried about everything – we’ve all been in that situation where you are questioning and worried and afraid that you’re not going to belong – to see somebody of that stature come out and say that’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with it, is massive.
“When I came out in cricket, it was daunting at first. I had been at the same club since I was 12, and I got to 17 or 18 and knew at that point, and it was very much eating me up. I remember that when I did come out, my biggest fear was how these blokes were going to react, because it’s all very macho, especially at that age.
“Thankfully the first two people that actually reached out and responded when I did come out were the first team captain of the club, and one of the guys that I played juniors with who’s since gone on to be a pro. They both just basically said ‘look mate, we don’t care, it’s not going to change anything, we’re going to judge you on how you are as a bloke and not any anything else, you’re still Steve to us’.
“That was just massive to know I had the support of those people, and know that they had my back. Everybody seemed to be really on board with it and really welcoming.
“Obviously since then I’ve changed clubs a couple of times, and it’s been that same daunting feeling – but again, I’ve been very lucky both times to not have any incidents. Everybody’s been really supportive and really on board with it.
“I’ve been very lucky that genuinely I seem to have got through everything okay, and without too many incidents and issues. I’m sure that there are a lot of people who don’t, who do struggle, or even feel that they can’t be out in a sporting environment.
“I remember speaking to someone who joined my previous club, and it was really weird – I still can’t like accurately describe how something like this makes you feel – but he basically said he was playing cricket because of that article I did with Sky Sports. He had stopped playing cricket as a teenager because he felt like it wasn’t for him, but then he saw those articles and thought maybe he could come back and play again.
“How do you even process someone telling you that? That was just surreal, but it shows how powerful being open and setting all of these things up can be I guess. If it means that more people are going to start playing, then I’m happy to open myself up for whatever.”
A place for all
There are elements to, and perceptions of, cricket that could understandably put people off of giving the sport a go.
Some see it as a posh sport, others find the traditions or etiquette to be strange. Some people may simply not be able to see representation within the sport, and then there is sledging.
Cricket may be one of the few sports where players are actively encouraged to say things to opponents to try and get under their skins, but when done in the right spirit it is far more likely to be tongue-in-cheek – and directed towards teammates rather than the opposition.
Those barriers are the kind of things that inclusive clubs like the one Gillies is trying to build in West Yorkshire aim to break down. He has seen how much good they can do in other parts of the country, and in an area that has such a large cricket following, he hopes it can open doors around him too.
“A lot is made out about sledging and cricket, I know that,” Gillies added.
“Certainly at the level that I play at, which isn’t a massively high standard – I play second team level and the odd first team game here or there – sledging is all good-natured. There’ll be a little of piss taking, but it’s more likely they’ll be taking the piss out of their mates on the same team. Sometimes you get teams who just are a bit nasty, and you typically know going into a game to pack your earplugs because these guys are going to be chatty and are going to try and get under your skin.
“I guess that is quite intimidating for somebody that’s new. It’s something that I’m kind of numb to, I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve been playing for 12 years so to me it’s just second nature. If first slip is saying something, just don’t react.
“I definitely feel like there’s still a place for that good-natured ribbing in the game. That’s what makes the game entertaining for something that goes on for hours. You need to keep yourself amused – if it was quiet when you’re in the field and deadly silent, it would just be awful and nobody would play.
“Cricket definitely has got a reputation, but I feel like it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be. Without wanting to get too nerdy, stuff like Law 42 coming in – which is basically about unfair play – gives umpires a lot more power to stamp out any sort of dissent. If they feel like the situation is getting too much, they can step in and they’ve got the power to ultimately send players off if they see fit in extreme scenarios. It’s certainly moving in the right direction.
“The environment that we want to try and produce in an inclusive club is that you can have a laugh and a joke among yourselves, but there is a line. That’s such a cliche, but there is a line, and the majority of people know where that line is when sledging.
“As I say, I’ve been massively inspired by seeing first hand the club that they’ve built in Birmingham, the Unicorns, and just how together they all feel as a club. They seem closer than any other club that I’ve been involved with.
“I’m not saying that all my other clubs are awful, that’s far from the case, but it seems like such a tight-knit but also welcoming group. The atmosphere is just unlike anything I’ve been surrounded by in cricket, and I think that empowers people to be themselves all the time.
“If I can emulate what they’ve managed in Birmingham up here in Leeds, in West Yorkshire, then that would be job done because I feel like they’re doing amazing stuff down there. Hopefully we can do something just half as good as that – that’s the plan at least.
“The thing that we want to be really clear about for this Leeds team is that we are looking for people of any ability. Even if people have never picked up a bat before in their lives, and they just want to see if it’s something for them, that’s fine.
“Likewise, we’re open to people of any gender. We want to be a club that’s for everybody, however they identify. It’s not going to be a problem, I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t do something because of things like that which don’t matter.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like it’s above them, because it’s not. I just want to get a group of people together to have some fun and play some cricket, and hopefully we’ll get a team together at some point and we can go down and stuff the Unicorns. That would be fun.”
If you are interested in being part of an inclusive cricket team in West Yorkshire, complete this survey.