‘It’s a gentlemen’s game’

Finding acceptance among the world’s first gay cricket team

(CNN) The sound of cricket bags wheeling along uneven concrete and the click-clacking of cricket studs accompanies the arrival of Manish Modi and his teammates.

They have just arrived at Botany Bay Cricket Club – a quaint and exotically named ground in Middlesex, near London – ahead of their league game against Hadley Wood in the Middlesex and Essex Invitational League.

Graces Cricket Club are playing in a competitive league for the first time in just over 10 years, having lost every one of their games in the Middlesex Sunday League Division One a decade ago.

Manish Modi, center, and his teammates head to the pitch.

“It was (initially) difficult getting the first 11 people,” Pat Sopp – one of Graces’ founding members and an honorary vice-president – told CNN Sport.

“I think we managed to get 10 cricketers and Duncan Irvine, who is one of the founders, for his first and only game of cricket.”

Now, Graces’ team is made up of cricketers from all over the globe, with players from England, India, Australia and Sri Lanka in today’s XI.

And this XI all have one thing in common – they are gay.

Graces are the world’s first – and up until recently, the only – LGBT cricket club.

Set up in 1996 with the aim of providing an “opportunity for people to watch and play cricket irrespective of gender or sexual orientation,” in a world where being gay wasn’t always accepted, Graces have become a haven for people to come to terms with their sexuality while also allowing them to play cricket.

Graces’ founding member Pat Sopp.

They’ve often come from societies where it is illegal to be gay and the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals is something that Sam Nimaiyar, who was born in India, has valued immensely.

“Not being so well accepted in (your) family but now you have your friends who you can talk to and do what you love to do, which is play sports. That’s pretty good,” Nimaiyar told CNN Sport.

Nimaiyar was married to a woman and fathered a daughter while he was living in his native India.

And although he is extremely proud of his young daughter – his eyes light up and he can’t help but smile as he mentions her – at Graces, he’s been able to connect with people who have had similar experiences.

“I’ve got a daughter who is nine-years-old,” he explains. “But Manish (Modi) has a 16-year-old daughter and another player has a 14-year-old son, so you can relate to other people.

“Because initially I was worried and thought ‘oh my God how are people going to perceive me?’”

Sam Nimaiyar and Manish Modi cheer from the sidelines as their teammates bat.

An inclusive environment

“Acceptance” is a word that keeps cropping up at Graces.

Whether it is accepting a fielding mistake or accepting a new player into the team, the club’s openness and tolerance is one of the key reasons why it keeps attracting new members – regardless of their background.

Although predominantly known as being an LGBT cricket club, Graces also welcomes straight players.

Graces score a run against Hadley Wood.

For Stuart Anthony – Graces’ vice-captain – accepting players of any color, creed and most importantly, ability, and creating an environment where people can have fun, is key.

“We do have some weaker players and they still need to be part of it,” Anthony said. “They want to be a part of it and we really want to have a place for them as well.

“You’ve got to have a culture within what we represent to say it’s not just about winning, it’s about participation, it’s about making people feel welcome and if you’re not a strong player, it doesn’t really matter, we’ll try and find a place for you.”

Graces captain Manish Modi and vice-captain Stuart Anthony.

For a lot of club members who have played cricket before, their sexuality has often meant they’ve stood out from the rest of the team.

But for Chris Sherwood – the club’s press and publicity officer – being able to play cricket and not stand out for being gay is one of Graces’ unique appeal.

“It’s nice not to be ‘the gay one,’” Sherwood said. “I always feel like if I was in a straight team, it’s like ‘oh Chris, he’s the gay one’ and then I have to come out.

“This is the reason it’s difficult for people to come out because there’s all this banter about gay being lesser somehow and to suddenly go ‘that’s me, I’m gay,’ it’s quite a difficult thing to do.”

Stuart Anthony bats against Hadley Wood.

Cultural difficulties

Adorned in a bright, lime green undershirt and dark green cap, Graces captain Modi is very much the vocal leader of this team.

Constantly encouraging his bowlers and batsmen, you can see that he is well-liked by his teammates – he doesn’t hesitate to point out he was elected as captain without any opposition for the first time in the club’s history.

Modi moved from India to the UK in 2004 and although he had known he was gay for the previous 18 months, he’d never had any gay relationships.

Upon moving to London, a combination of his membership at Graces, his new gay friends and his ex-boyfriend – whom he still credits for much of the positive aspects of his life – Modi decided to come out to the most important person in his life – his dad.

Modi speaks to a teammate during a break in the match.

That wasn’t easy given the patriarchal Indian culture.

“In Asian culture, it is rare that father and son will sit down because we have a huge communication gap because you respect your elders,” Modi explained.

“My dad was my hero, but I never said (that) to him. And that’s what I wanted to tell him, that he’s my hero. Thanks for giving me all this.”

He nearly didn’t go through with his plan to come out to his dad and recalls a moment where his cousins tried to set him up with a potential bride. That only had the effect of reaffirming his intention to talk about his sexuality with his father.

This is Modi's first season as Graces' captain.

While his father supported him wholeheartedly after he came out, Modi fears that his sexuality could have negative effects to his family that still lives in India. Still, he believes that going public, he could help others in a similar situation.

Modi is the only member of his family to not live on the subcontinent – his dad was visiting him in London when he came out and his mother has passed away. In traditional Indian culture, where arranged marriages are often the norm, to have an openly gay relative would harm a family’s ability to attract potentially prosperous spouses.

India may be 7,600 kilometres away from the UK, but Nimaiyar too worries about the impact on his family. “Overall, we all have responsibilities to make a change in the society. Not be afraid of consequences. If my story can help open up one person’s mindset I think it will be worth it,” he says.

A young volunteer keeps score of the match.
A cricket ball lies beside the boundary rope.

Illegal to be gay

On the same day that Graces are playing against Hadley Wood, India are facing Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup in front of an estimated global audience of 1.5 billion people.

During the lunch break between innings – over a selection of egg, cheese and tuna sandwiches - players gather round a phone to catch a glimpse of how their beloved national teams are getting on.

These two nations are among the five South Asian countries at the tournament in which LGBT marriage is illegal and in four of those – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh – same-sex sexual activity is illegal.

Members of Graces watch the Cricket World Cup on a phone during a tea break.

Same-sex sexual activity in India was only legalized last year, and as a result, the country is embracing change.

So while the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) introduced the Stonewall “Rainbow Laces” campaign in 2017, in an attempt to welcome and accept LGBT people at all levels of sport, that has yet to happen on the Indian sub-continent.

Nimaiyar thinks that a one-day international World Cup match would be the perfect place to make a statement towards the LGBT community.

“Imagine if all 22 players on the field at the India-Pakistan match going on today wore these (rainbow laces) and there are 1.5 billion people watching all over the world,” he said.

“That would make a huge difference. In some of the showpiece matches like the Cricket World Cup final, if the players were to come out and proactively support us, it would make a huge difference because there’s millions of people watching all over the world.”

Nimaiyar found Graces after playing for a LGBT tennis club.

The importance of icons

Although it is estimated that the law change affected 104 million gay Indians, it is still not commonplace to be openly gay in Indian society.

Whether it is because of traditional attitudes or homophobic beliefs that still permeate through the country as a result of religious ideologies, the numbers of openly gay people in India is disproportionate to the population of India.

It’s impossible to pinpoint a singular action that will definitively change the perspective of the Indian population of the LGBT community, but speaking to Modi and Nimaiyar, it is clear that they believe that having famous Indian icons – whether they are sports stars or celebrities in other walks of life – voice their support for the LGBT community, is something that could significantly help gay people.

“Whenever the cricket board does something, it has to go to the players - their own players - and if Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni, who are cricket ambassadors, will come up and do something like that, that would definitely help because they are big celebrities in India,” Modi said.

Nimaiyar is a big supporter of Stonewall's "Rainbow Laces" campaign.

Not accepted by everyone

Unfortunately, a common factor that connects all of the members at Graces, is having experienced negative behaviour because of their sexuality.

Nimaiyar recalls a former member at Graces – who was of Pakistani origin but had been born and raised in the UK – who came out to his mum. However, she advised him not to come out to his brother and father because “they would rather you be a rapist or murderer than gay.”

And it isn’t just the ethnic contingent of the club who have had to deal with homophobic abuse during their lives.

Growing up in a Christian household with traditional values brought its own issues for Anthony, but after his younger brother came out as well, his mother was a lot more accepting.

"You've got to have a culture within which you represent that it's not just about winning, it's about participation," says Stuart Anthony

However, the attack of Melania Geymonat and her partner on a London bus a few weeks ago because of their sexuality brings back some unpleasant memories for Anthony.

“One time, a guy muttered under his breath ‘you guys can go to hell,’” Anthony remembers. “There was no interaction with him whatsoever.

“It was just a funny look we were getting as we’re waiting for the bus. And another time, a guy was really giving us some evils on the bus and he went upstairs so we left and went and sat downstairs away from it and as he got off, he just stopped and did a horrible (slitting the throat) gesture.”

A safe haven

But at Graces, players can come and find solace in what can be a tough world, and just play a game they love with a group of like-minded friends.

The comradery and togetherness fostered at the club – partly down to their love of cricket and partly down to their similar sexual orientation– is something that they pride themselves on, and keeps players coming back.

Members of the Graces team watch the match from the clubhouse terrace.

Modi thinks that unlike football, “it’s a gentleman’s game. It’s still a gentleman’s game. Everyone is accepting.”

And at Graces, England captain Joe Root has become something of an hero figure. In February 2019, Root received widespread praise after a stump’s microphone picked up part of a verbal altercation with West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel in which Root was heard responding: “Don’t use it as an insult. There is nothing wrong with being gay.”

Although Root wouldn’t reveal what Gabriel said – it couldn’t be heard on the microphone – Gabriel admitted after the game to asking Root: “Do you like boys?” Not only was Root standing up on behalf of all gay cricket players, but in subsequently scoring a century after making the comment, he did what the members at Graces’ have learnt to do – let the cricket do the talking. Gabriel was banned for four matches after the comment.

“Take a bow. Take a bow, Joe Root,” Modi said. “He is a smart guy.

“Because me knowing a little bit of Caribbean culture, it’s like back home in India. A cricketer would make that comment, what Shannon Gabriel said, in a humorous manner, just banter, but what Joe Root did, he said that so the whole world could listen.”

“It's a gentleman's game. It's still a gentleman's game. Everyone is accepting.”