The African-Caribbean Engagement Programme is to be established as an independent charity after receiving significant backing from Sport England and chair Ebony Rainford-Brent is determined that quick progress will be made
Ebony Rainford-Brent talks to Sky Sports News about the ACE programme, which she helped establish after growing impatient waiting for authorities to instigate changes to improve diversity in English cricket
“Is it down to me? On paper, no. This is something the game should have done. I do think it should have been down to the game but where I am, I’ve run out of patience.”
At a certain point, enough was enough for Ebony Rainford-Brent. In 2001, she became the first black woman to play for England.
But rather than paving the way for others and helping to lead to greater diversity throughout men’s and women’s cricket, she has watched on as the number of black players in English professional cricket has dwindled in recent years, with no discernible attempts from those in charge to address the issue.
- ACE Programme launches charity after Sport England funding
Ultimately, she decided that she was fed up of waiting for something to be done and took action. In January this year, the African-Caribbean Engagement (ACE) Programme was launched by Surrey County Cricket Club to offer cricketing opportunities to boys and girls from African-Caribbean backgrounds.
Rainford-Brent explains Surrey’s ACE programme – an initiative which hopes to increase cricket participation in the African-Caribbean community
Nine months later, and the ACE Programme is set to be established as an independent charity after being given significant backing, £540,000 over three years to be precise, from Sport England with Rainford-Brent as chair and Michael Holding, Roland Butcher, Denise Lewis and Sir Trevor McDonald as Honorary Patrons.
Former England players Mark Butcher and Alex Tudor are among the ambassadors, as is current England Women’s all-rounder Sophia Dunkley.
Following the programme’s launch, 25 young players were selected for a coaching programme this summer after 70 took part in trials shortly before the lockdown period in early March, with one young player graduating from ACE to feature in matches for Surrey’s Under-18 side.
Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to play cricket for England, was part of her country’s World Cup win in 2009 and has since become a respected cricket executive and commentator
The progress made in such a short space of time is undeniably impressive but Rainford-Brent is determined that it continues and not just in London, but across the country with Warwickshire CCC announced as a partner and a new programme in Birmingham to launch in 2021, as well as plans to set up similar programmes in Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol.
“We want to accelerate change, I am impatient,” she said. “Accelerating change is important for us, I’ve already got grey hairs and as soon as I see that, I know time is ticking. I don’t want to wait 25 years to see results, I want to see them soon.
“We’ve seen some success this summer but our challenge is to accelerate, not just in one area of London but move that momentum all around the country.
“We want to draw a line and now create a positive new vision for the black community. If we get this right, then I hope this creates a legacy and a movement that can change the thinking around this. There is a lot of work to be done to address that but we want to create something empowering and inspiring.
Michael Holding says education is key to eradicating the problem of racism and ensuring that this becomes a moment of genuine change in society
“I’ve hit that point and the more and more we do this, the more and more frustrated I am that this needs to change. What I would say that there is a willingness from more people in power, I’ve had some really good conversations with Ian Watmore, Tom Harrison, Sanjay Patel – the people in positions of power want to do something.”
‘Rupture with cricket in 90s was painful’
Chris Grant, a board director at Sport England, believes the disconnect between African-Caribbean communities and English cricket goes back to the 1990s and thinks the ACE Programme can help to repair that relationship.
“This is called Afro-Caribbean engagement and the way I look at it, it is more a re-engagement,” he added. “The Afro-Caribbean community wasn’t engaged to cricket, it was married. When my father, who was part of that Windrush generation, came actually before Windrush before the war, cricket was a complete part of his life coming from Jamaica.
“But something happened and there was a sort of messy divorce between the Afro-Caribbean community and cricket in England. This is mending that and putting it back together. I just think that is hugely important.
“It was 25 years ago that a lot of people in the Afro-Caribbean community lost it with cricket. That was the year when there was an article published in Wisden suggesting that Devon Malcolm, who at that point I think was the record wicket-taker in a single Test, how could he really be English? The title of the article was ‘Is it in the blood?’
“It was also the year that the West Indies toured England and some of the cricket grounds, including the Kia Oval, were really proud of the fact that they had introduced new ticketing mechanisms and were banning musical instruments and banners, which meant a whole generation of West Indian supporters, English people who were supporting West Indies, got thrown out of the game.
“So, for me personally, it was a heartbreaker because people like Clive Lloyd, for example, were just massive in my development. I literally would not be here today if it were not for those very few people – Sir Trevor McDonald is another, an ambassador for ACE – who I could see in the public eye, who I could look up to and were conducting themselves in this amazing way.
“For me personally, that rupture with cricket in the 90s was painful and I think for lots of people in the Afro-Caribbean community, men and women, there has been this kind of ache in their heart for the last 20 years.”
Rainford-Brent says she sometimes questioned why she remained in cricket after being subjected to racist comments during her career in the sport
Chevy Green has been appointed as ACE’s director of programmes, one of four full-time members of staff that the Sport England funding has made possible, and says while developing future England stars would be desirable, just getting more families from African-Caribbean backgrounds involved at all levels of the game is just as important.
“We may not be able to get them to play for England but whatever we can do to get them on that journey and create the best opportunities, both on and off the pitch, to do that (we will),” he said.
“Then one day we might have some more England cricketers, we might have some more people in sports development coaching, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches. If ACE can do that, then why not?
“If ACE can do that through empowering a young person to play as well as develop off the field, that is all I want to do, I’m passionate about it and I’m looking forward to it. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day – but we weren’t there and we’re here now! We’re going to make things happen.”
’50-50′ split among ACE targets
Increasing the number of female players in the programme is also high on Rainford-Brent’s list of priorities, with boys making up the vast majority of the 25 selected after the initial trials.
“We only attracted 17 per cent of females to our open days,” she told reporters. “I know there are different challenges and different barriers. Only two were selected for the academy out of 25. For this programme to be a success, we want it to be 50-50, that is our ambition. To get there, that could take a lot of work.
“I don’t think cricket is seen as attractive to females, first of all. That was my barrier, I remember thinking it was absolute nonsense until I got the experience. So, one thing is changing perceptions and making cricket visibly cool and knowing that there are opportunities. We spoke to Sophia Dunkley and she wants to play a part in just shifting perceptions.”
England all-rounder Sophia Dunkley is one of the ACE ambassadors
Green added: “I’d love to be proven wrong but I’m yet to be proven wrong on this: there isn’t two black girls in any cricket academy in this country.
“So the fact that we launched the ACE academy and found two young black girls, I think that is something that should be celebrated because there is not two black girls playing in any other cricket academy across the country. It’s an achievement and as this programme develops, we’ll get more young black women becoming players, coaches, leaders and role models in their community.”
Rainford-Brent says that to begin with, simply increasing the numbers involved in the programme would constitute success but after years spent waiting, while wary that things will not change overnight, she has loftier goals for the future.
“I don’t want everyone to expect that we’re going to produce a mini Jofra Archer or Sophia Dunkley tomorrow but if we get the grounding right, then we will get to that stage.”