Graces 2Sam Bennett  

“Pretty good” is the term Chris Sherwood applies to Graces Cricket Club’s latest season. It’s not been a classic, the player admits, “but we’ve won more than we’ve lost”.  

Founded in 1996, Graces are – to the best of their knowledge – the world’s first and only gay cricket team. Based in Greenford, west London, they gained media coverage in 2017 due to their association with a couple of campaigns: Stonewall’s ‘Rainbow Laces’ and NatWest’s ‘Cricket knows no boundaries’; the former an initiative aimed at ridding sport of homophobia, and the latter a campaign “which,” as NatWest puts it, “showcases and celebrates the diversity of modern cricket in England and Wales”.  

Chris is also Graces’ publicity and media officer. Pleased with the attention paid to the side of late, he says: “Certainly, our aim is to get as many people to know about us as possible. One of the things we suffer from is lack of awareness; unless someone tells you there’s a gay cricket team, it’s not something you imagine there ever is.”  

Photo: Clive Moore

Graces recently ran a Facebook campaign, where they plainly identified themselves as a gay cricket club. “There were a number of homophobic comments as a result of that,” Chris remembers, “which demonstrates that homophobia is still rife within the cricketing context.” Certain jokes appeared online about how gay players must run and throw; part of Graces’ purpose, Chris says, is to break down the stereotypes and prejudices that exist about gay people. A lot of teams, he goes on, turn up to play them knowing they’re facing a gay side, and are thus complacent about beating them – “and they don’t”. Graces, he tells me, are “a group of gay men, who appear just like every other cricket team that there is. It’s about normalising homosexuality, in a way.”  

He says the club has another purpose: “to provide a place for people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable being gay and playing in other sports teams, where there is a lot of homophobia inherent in the language used”. He says as well, “By playing for a gay cricket team I’m not defined by my sexuality.” Instead, at Graces a player will be defined as “the loud one”, or “the quiet one”, or by what they do for a job. “If I played for a straight team,” Chris says, “I’d be the gay one.”  

He describes Graces as “an international haven for people who don’t live in circumstances that are as easy as our circumstances in this country”. A large proportion of the team, he says, is made up of foreigners who have come to England from countries where it’s against the law to be gay. There are not enough gay English people who want to play cricket, he states, so Graces count on foreigners “who move to London because of their sexuality”. These players come from “big cricketing nations where it’s still illegal to be homosexual”, such as Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan.  

“We have one player who goes by another name at the club, so that when the match reports come out, his family back in Sri Lanka don’t find out that he is playing for a gay cricket team. He won’t be photographed, he won’t be filmed. We’ve had a few players over the years like that.”  

According to Stonewall, half of all sports fans have heard homophobic abuse at a live game in the past five years. “When racism became an issue in football, it wasn’t stamped out overnight,” says Chris, who also plays for Stonewall FC. “Cultural change takes time.” Racism is policed now, he says. Someone making racist slurs on the terraces at a sporting event will be called out on it by other fans. Plus, officials act on it, and perpetrators of racism are thrown out of, and banned from, sports grounds.  

“Homosexuality is behind on the timeline of progression,” he says. “Only now are stewards at football grounds starting to take issue with homophobic chanting.” Indeed, our interview took place the same day Leicester City fan Jason Holmes was fined £300 for his homophobic chanting – committed during Leicester’s Premier League clash with Brighton and Hove Albion in August. Such condemnation needs to take place, Chris says, and “gradually filter down into the public consciousness”.  

In a survey conducted a couple of years ago, Graces team members were asked if they’d ever experienced or witnessed homophobia whilst playing for Graces. 26 answered, only three said yes. This low figure does not surprise Chris, given that he has not come across homophobia himself whilst playing for Graces. He reckoned “that a lot of the homophobic experiences were from the older players who had been playing for a number of years; I got the sense that most of the homophobic stories were from years gone by. Also, because we’re a friendly team – we don’t play in a league – we’re able to choose our fixtures; and if ever there is any animosity from a team, we just don’t play them again. That doesn’t have to be homophobic animosity – sometimes we just find teams are overly aggressive and unpleasant.” They play teams that know them, teams they get on well with, “and it makes for a nice social occasion”.  

As a side, though, they are hoping to get into a league for next season or the one after. For this, they need a new home ground with facilities befitting of a league cricket team (so long as it’s within the M25, the club are not overly fussed about the location). That’s one issue: another dilemma league cricket could throw up, Chris points out, is that “suddenly we’ll be playing in situations that are competitive, where we have no choice over our opposition, and I suspect we’re more likely to experience homophobia then. But, that said, I think times have changed and it’s less likely.”  

Knowing that I also play a bit of cricket (for a friendly village team), as our conversation draws to a close, Chris invites me to make a guest appearance for Graces. But an international haven should be a place of beauty, and the way I play the game is anything but.  

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