- By Ebony Rainford-Brent
- ` cricket presenter and pundit
1 hour ago
The ACE program was launched by Surrey County Cricket Club in 2020
Ebony Rainford-Brent was the first black woman to play cricket for England and is now a presenter and pundit for ` Sport. She founded the African-Caribbean Engagement Program, which creates opportunities for young cricketers from black communities. She sits on the board of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
An exciting and transformative time lies ahead for cricket.
Clearly there is still work to be done in the areas of race, class and gender. The journey has already begun and the ICEC report will accelerate significant change.
That’s the part that really interests me. Through my years of experience with the game, I have observed and experienced first-hand a number of the challenges that exist. However, I have also experienced how barriers can be addressed and broken down. I am someone who wants to create tangible action and impact.
This journey is exciting not only for cricket, but also for other sports that face similar challenges. If cricket can successfully navigate the next phase, it can be a pioneer of how a sport can create a shift towards greater inclusion.
I set up the ACE program because I felt more needed to be done for cricket in the Black British community.
When we started, we looked at the data across the country, from grassroots cricket right through to performance levels, and found the numbers were bleak. Apart from a small bubble in London, black British participation was on the verge of extinction.
There was a popular narrative that kids were only interested in football and that cricket wasn’t on their radar. We found the opposite. The interest in cricket was there but the opportunity to gain access to it was very low.
We worked hard and identified the communities where we needed to be the most. Three years later, 78% of the schools we visit have never had cricket before, while 87% of children in our community centers outside of ACE have not had access to cricket.
Once we made cricket attractive and accessible, we realized there was a lot of interest in the game. Once we built trust, we started seeing results. We currently have more than 20,000 children engaged and we want to increase the number to over 100,000 to get closer to being representative of the population.
We were also thrilled with our transition rates to the next level of the game. One in five scholarship holders from the ACE Academy makes it into a county study program. We have introduced an open testing process and anyone who wants to show what they can do can call us or send us a video.
Our trainers look everywhere. One coach even spotted a kid across a parking lot and talked to his parents because he thought he looked athletic. They had never hit a cricket ball before but are now on the talent track.
So far we have received some funding from the ECB, but this went even further earlier this month when we were announced as one of five organizations to become charity partners of the governing body.
This means we have certainty for the immediate future and can build on our investment from Sport England and align a clear strategy with the wider game. We can set out to achieve what the in-game representation should look like.
Many of the conversations had previously focused on race and gender. I am pleased that ICEC is highlighting teaching as an area for investment and focus.
Our work in the ACE Program works with underrepresented young people in lower socioeconomic communities. I have expressed before that the challenge for many underrepresented groups, including those from the white working class, is access.
Research (and my personal experience) suggests that the further you progress in the game, the more visible bias becomes. Even without diving deep into numbers and data, we can see this with our own eyes. Squads at national and international level, coaching teams and boards of directors are not representative of the society in which we live.
Therefore, a secondary goal of ACE is to build pipelines for pathways into coaching, management, media and leadership. This is not an immediate goal of the program but certainly a long-term goal.
Despite all of this pain and reflection the game has gone through, the question that often arises is, “What does progress look like?” It is right to ask. How do we know if we have done a good job and when?
At a fundamental level, this happens through representation. When we look at the population, we have a rough idea of how minority communities should be reflected on the field and in the boardroom. It’s important to capture the data and hard numbers.
The representation of people’s experiences in the game is more nuanced. It’s all well and good to say you invited someone to lunch, but if you don’t then make them feel welcome, you’ve done more harm than good.
We must observe experiences over time, ask questions, and be prepared for honest answers. The same applies to the processes used to report bad experiences. In five years, if someone needs to raise an issue and feels supported, heard and cared for, then we will know the game has progressed.
One thing we will have little control over at ACE is representation at the elite level of the game.
Our focus is on developing grassroots participation and supporting the transition into talent pathways up to representation age. It requires a collective effort with the many stakeholders. We work with six counties and it’s exciting to see that our long-term missions are aligned.
I believe a 10-year goal for adequate representation across the game is achievable.
ECB leaders have declared their aim to make cricket the most inclusive sport in the country.
This is an ambitious goal, but also an exciting one considering the history of the game, the attitude towards it, its traditions and challenges.
That is the mission to which I am committed and, frankly, the only reason why I agreed to join the Executive Board of the ECB.
If you set the intention, it can be achieved. I honestly believe it can be done.