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"I'll tell you straight... this is the best club I've ever played for," exclaims Manish. The captain of the Graces Cricket Club in London has played league cricket at the Municipality Grounds of Ahmedabad, alongside future India Test cricketer Parthiv Patel. He has travelled the world, played club cricket in Perth and for various teams in England since he moved to the UK 15 years ago. It is from close quarters that he follows the 2019 World Cup, where inclusivity, or the lack of it, of this 10-team competition has been a constant topic of discussion.
Graces, the team he joined 11 years ago, is unlike any other team he's represented - it is perhaps the world's first gay cricket team. "There are only two such teams in the world," Manish says. "The second is in Wellington in New Zealand. That's just for the ladies. One of our players met that team and they were so nice."
Manish, Leo (Graces club chairman) and Stuart (club vice-captain) have just finished a 40-over Sunday league game. It is a big season for the three senior members of the team. The club registered into a competitive Middlesex and Essex league after eight years of only playing friendly games. And three matches into the 10-game season, they have 60 points and sit atop the standings.
"We'd been struggling to get players to come regularly for a while. It was embarrassing turning up for league games with just 8-9 players so we stayed out of competitive cricket for a while. But now, in this season, if we can somehow win this, we can really raise the profile of this club," Leo says.
The idea of the club was conceived by Duncan Irvine and Jonathan Hardisty in 1996 at the former's pub, Central Station, outside London's Kings Cross Station. They named their brainchild after the father of modern cricket - WG Grace. There were early mutterings of disapproval from the Grace family but in time those blew over. An advertisement in the Pink Paper - once popular with the LGBT community - brought other players, from where the club really spread its wings.
At Graces, gay men and women can get together and play cricket free of societal prejudice and poison. When not playing, they champion LGBT rights, provide a comforting shoulder for those in need while coming to terms with their identity or simply have a whale of a time discussing the sport they all singularly love.
"I've had no problems at any other clubs that I've played in but I know why this club is special," Manish says. "But at the end of the day, you still had to be a little bit closet. What we had here was a club where I can be myself. These guys have given me so much. They gave me all the confidence to come out to my father about five years ago.
"Over the years, I've learnt so much about people, I've honed my cricket skills, I've seen the boys growing in confidence. There was only one Sri Lankan and one Pakistan player 11 years ago. There is still taboo and opposition. But I'm thinking there's a little more tolerance and awareness, at least here in central London," he adds.
The club has 20 active players and 1 Super Fan from varied backgrounds. There are Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Australians, New Zealanders and Englishmen. The club, Leo feels, is about 5-6 players short of consistently fielding two teams - one competitively, the other for social outreach - given that everyone also has day jobs and can't always turn up to play. But twenty-three years on since inception, Graces believe they are not far from realising one of their big dreams - A Gay Ashes series.
"The ECB is aware of it, of course. They've been incredibly supportive, even with the whole rainbow laces campaign and so on. We know Australians, who once played for us here, will be willing to get it started there too and will have all our support," Manish says. "But I can understand it is a little tricky there. After all these years, they've only just got their LGBT laws changed. But they've got LGBT sports. Perth alone has seven different LGBT clubs... Swimming, squash, tennis etc. Only cricket isn't there..."
Manish is hopeful that with support trickling in from the international cricketing fraternity in 2019, things will turn around, even if not as progressively quickly as in women's cricket. "Maybe men's cricket is very closely tied to commercials and hence they are battling perceptions to come out. They are thinking about financial baggage. 'What happens if I come out. Will I lose all money making opportunities?'
"Hats off to Joe Root though for the way he stood up for us in that situation [the incident with Shannon Gabriel]. He handled it so professionally as England Test captain. He was being very smart he went near the stump and made his comment. I know Gabriel didn't intend it in the context but you do not say such things on an international platform, it was homophobic and not good," Manish says, before adding that he was left confused with the whole James Faulkner boy-friend joke on Instagram.
The opportunity at Graces, though, as Manish and Leo point out, is to help tackle challenges at roots as opposed to only be perceived as harbingers of world change. Manish realises not all his teammates are as lucky as he is to have an understanding and "woke" father. Many of them understandably refuse to be interviewed or have their pictures published for the fear of being seen by their families and friends. Incidentally, even the statistics and scorecards at www.gracescricket.org.uk have names of players changed in order to protect their identity.
"Everyone can come out at his/her own time, when they are comfortable with it. Graces is there for them for all kinds of support. And until then, there's always cricket. Because whatever our sexual identities, once we cross that boundary rope, we all bleed cricket, then our sport takes over," Manish adds.
But is the playing ground as comforting as the club itself? Are opposition aware of the team's profile. And if so, has the sledging ever gotten ugly in competitive games?
"As a team, we've toured countries like Malta, Spain, Portugal and Corfu for cricket. They all know about our team's profile. To be very honest, every opponent we've had has been supportive. Our profile even piques curiosity and that can be good education. Of course there has been sledging on the field, but it has had nothing to do with the fact that we are gay," Leo says.
"There was just a game I was umpiring once when a 14-year-old Asian boy standing next to me at square leg asked me if I was gay. When I said yes, he just went quiet but nothing else. He was too young," Manish adds with a laugh. "Look our cricket is all that matters. We had a guy from New South Wales in Australia who contacted us online and came over for the nets at The Oval. He was heterosexual and we asked him if he knew about our club. And he said, 'Yes, so what. I'm here to play cricket. That's all.'
"Obviously, we have protocols before players join our team, as with any other clubs, a code of conduct. We would like to know their background because we don't want any one coming in with homophobic thoughts. There's social media for that. But such instances are reassuring," Manish adds.
The conversation inevitably comes back to the ongoing league. The tournament, Manish believes, could really help further the club's ambitions. There's potential to attract sponsorship and maybe even enter talks with ECB. The club is now looking to improve infrastructure, which includes getting their own home ground (they currently rent out Broxbourne CC's ground at Hertfordshire) replete with a club house, nets and maybe, even coaching facilities.
But those are not the be all and end all. The club, as Manish puts it, is in a good place.
"If we are the team that won the league straight away after entering it, it'll almost have a Leicester City feel to it," Manish says drawing a parallel to his favourite football team. "If we can put 2019 champions on our mast, we have a greater story to tell. But we are not obsessing over it. At our heart, we are a friendly, inclusive club. We've had players with terrible back stories coming to us and find solace and joy through cricket. That is success as well."
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