No wonder Liam Norwell is smiling.
If there’s one thing the Warwickshire pace bowler appreciates, it’s a fine performance – and when another neon orange stump is flattened at the club’s indoor training center, it’s clear he likes what he sees.
“Some of the guys I just went to the nets with are pretty handy bowlers,” he says with a grin.
“There is really good cricket to see here.”
If Norwell sounds surprised, it’s because this isn’t your average workout.
Go back a few years and some of the people involved would not even have known how to hold a cricket ball, let alone be able to send it through the wicket into the nets at Edgbaston.
Strange as it seems, in a sport known for its ducks, it takes a unicorn to get these players in the game.
“It’s a safe space…there are no barriers here!”
Confused? let me explain.
Yes, the “unicorns” line is a bad pun — but it happens to be true.
The players who are put through their paces here are all members of the Birmingham unicorns – a club founded in 2020 as a place for LGBTQ+ people to play cricket without having to hide who they are.
Some of them have experienced discrimination in their daily lives and others have questioned whether their sexuality or gender identity would prevent them from being welcome at cricket at all.
The Unicorns wanted to change that and have teamed up with Warwickshire to try and make the game accessible to everyone.
A Unicorns member sits on the Warwickshire Board and the County Championship Team run training sessions like this to help Unicorns players get up to speed on the intricacies of the game.
“My wife and I were kind of bored and wanted to join a club,” says Olivia – one of the unicorns – between deliveries.
“I watched games on TV but didn’t actually play them and that seemed like a really good opportunity.
“Everyone should be able to compete as they are and in a mixed team sport like this it’s really good to get involved.
“The unicorns provide a safe little space. There are no barriers here!”
“The allies are huge, especially in cricket where we lagged behind”
The club was founded by Lachlan Smith, who still serves as chairman. If he hadn’t sustained an injury in winter training, he’d probably have a bowl himself.
Instead, he arranges his squad into groups from the sidelines and watches as Warwickshire coaches offer advice.
“They’ve been so supportive and encouraging, and the little skills and tips you pick up really stick with you,” he says.
“Our partnership with Warwickshire has evolved over the years and they have been incredibly supportive of what we want to do. That ally is huge, especially in cricket – because I think we’re a little behind.
“For world famous cricket clubs like Warwickshire to be allies of clubs like ours… I mean people have taken time off from work to be a part of it!”
“I was in environments that could have put me off”
Smith is not wrong about this delay.
With all the talk about the number of gay men playing professional football, it’s often forgotten that only one male professional cricketer – Somerset’s Steven Davies – has ever felt comfortable speaking publicly about his sexuality.
For years the only LGBTQ+ cricket club in the world was London-based Grace’s and it took the creation of the Unicorns for cricket to reach a stage where two inclusive teams could actually compete.
Yes, clubs are starting to embrace things like Pride Games and LGBTQ+ support groups, but there is still work to be done.
Paul Greetham is Warwickshire’s High Performance Manager and one of only a handful of professional players.
“As a gay man, there were several moments when I was part of environments that could have put me off,” he says.
“An unnecessary team ethos or things said in the dressing room – but I stayed true to the game and wanted to play cricket. So what the unicorns did to spread this inclusive message was amazing! It will encourage people to be authentic at clubs and hopefully in the professional game as well.”
“You hope this is cricket, period”
The session ends with a treat for the unicorns.
With the February frost still catching the light on Edgbaston’s outfield, they get a chance to step onto the pitch to snap some photos.
There’s something poetic about it all – one of the newest cricket clubs, made up of LGBTQ+ players and allies, strolling one of the oldest pitches in the game.
However, there is also an awareness that too many LGBTQ+ people have not had the opportunity in the past simply because of who they are.
“There’s probably a lot of talent in all sports that has been left out because they didn’t feel like they belonged,” Norwell admits.
“As a team, we go to great lengths to make everyone feel like they belong. Anything we can do to make sport more inclusive is our job.”
It’s a message that Warwickshire head coach Mark Robinson wholeheartedly repeats.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being on the England women’s team and I’ve seen some of them become more open and less vulnerable about their sexuality,” he says.
“Maybe it will be like that in the male world at some point.
“My involvement with cricket has been wonderful and supportive and you just want everyone to have the same experience, options and support that I’ve had.
“Hope that’s cricket, period.”
Every Wednesday you can listen to new episodes of the BBC’s LGBT sports podcast with Jack Murley on BBC Sounds.