Matches (14)
NZ v AUS (1)
Ranji Trophy (2)
WCL 2 (1)
PSL 2024 (1)
WPL (1)
Nepal Tri-Nation (1)
Sheffield Shield (3)
CWC Play-off (4)
Feature

Ebony Rainford-Brent aims even bigger with ACE

Three years on, African-Caribbean Engagement programme's goals are growing with its impact on the game

Ebony Rainford-Brent set up the ACE programme  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Ebony Rainford-Brent set up the ACE programme  •  PA Images via Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, the African-Caribbean Engagement programme (ACE) took over the Long Room at the Kia Oval for an impact report which updated those present on their work over the last two years. Amid the stories was one that embodied an extreme of ACE's achievements - a player who was one of nine youngsters identified by their Bristol academy who had been selected for Gloucestershire's age-group programmes.
Parish Bailey had not played cricket 18 months ago and his first exposure to it came after ACE development officer Theo Gordon chased down his mother's car on a hunch. Bailey looked to have the requisite physical attributes to be a cricketer. The remit from above, set by ACE chair and founder, and former women's World Cup winner Ebony Rainford-Brent MBE, was not simply to fill hubs but to identify and engage talent, even on sporting appearance alone. For Gordon, a quick scarper across a car park was just part of the job.
Bailey is now one of 44 players ACE have helped into County Age Group set-ups, of 141 scholars across the country at present who have all had different relationships with the game. As well as others with no previous exposure, there are those who were previously playing in more "informal settings", such as Afro-Caribbean leagues, or other institutions. Even those who had been grooved by family but never thought to take their talents outside the safe four walls of home. ACE have brought in, polished and realigned these individuals with the more traditional avenues of English cricket by offering more structure and, above all else, comfort.
Formed in January 2020 after it was discovered that the number of black British professional players had declined by 75 per cent and the participation rate among black youngsters aged between five and 16 had dropped to 5.2 per cent between 2017 and 2019, ACE is delivering. At the time of writing, 20 per cent of their scholars are now on county pathways. Though only truly in their second year as a fully functioning entity, they are steadily progressing to their end goal of, ultimately, being obsolete.
"The end goal is to be redundant," says Rainford-Brent. "It would be redundant, or at least our aims would not be what our current aims are. Because, by then, it would be completely absorbed into the system. The way we'd look for talent would be different, we'd be in the right schools. And I think it is possible. But that is our main goal. We said it at our trustee away day a couple of months ago - our goal would be to be redundant."
There may already be in train a shift within ACE as to how they measure success. The initial gauge was how many boys and girls they could introduce into the junior pathways, passing on their talent to the counties. However, following research into ACE by Dr Thomas Fletcher and Dr Tom Brown, of Leeds Beckett and Birmingham City universities respectively, they found themselves to be serving a different purpose.
"What the researchers came back and showed is the wider community impact has maybe been equally, or maybe even more powerful," explains Rainford-Brent. "What it's doing for the game, what it's doing for communities, rebuilding and connecting with schools, self-esteem, sense of identity. They believe that we should most probably focus on that more."
"Don't get me wrong, racism exists in society and there are a lot of layers there. But when you look at the provision in low socio-economic areas... that is the void I want us to fill as a game."
Ebony Rainford-Brent
It was something of a jolt to Rainford-Brent, who has been performance-minded since the beginning. She was under no illusions the talent out there in minority communities needed to be met more than halfway because of years of being ignored by the system. She remains unequivocal in her belief that when that first full-time contract comes for an ACE graduate, it will invigorate the whole organisation. Indeed, she has a long-term view of mimicking the models of football and athletics by going to schools and imprinting cricket from a young age, while armed with data sets on early tells a child might have an aptitude for, say, batting or fast bowling, and encouraging them down that path.
Yet there is a renewed appreciation for the off-field impact, from creating spaces where forgotten communities can embrace cricket, to helping them achieve other ambitions within it, such as coaching and umpiring.
"I think I've come to realise, actually, the wider bits of what we're seeing for the game," she says. "We're getting into areas where kids that were not engaged in cricket, at all, not had the exposure, and have developed a massive love for the game. Connections such as schools that want to become cricket academies. As we talk about our sport becoming the most inclusive sport, we're finding models and ways of working that can engage these kids. So we can maybe help with what we're learning to solve some of these problems our game has.
"Therefore our impact might not just be 'do we get a first class cricketer tomorrow?' It might be 'actually, do we help cricket reconnect with communities that have been disengaged?' And be able to get kids from the grassroots to the elite."
Perhaps the best statistics that encapsulate all this with the high-performance element is the fact that 87 per cent of those who attend ACE sessions cite "social identity" as a key factor in them coming back. That is 10 per cent above the national average across all sports. It is an environment where they feel a little more connected, and a lot more understood.
Such a sense of belonging is no coincidence. Everyone working at ACE whether in south London, Birmingham, Bristol, Sheffield, north London and at their soon-to-be running hubs in Nottingham and Manchester, have shared experiences with those they are targeting.
"I take my own upbringing as an example here," explains Rainford-Brent. "My mum was working nights to help me to be able to play cricket. So when we turned up to play cricket sometimes there used to be misconceptions about us because we'd come up with a load of bags, my mum was falling asleep. She'd be with me through to the end of training, then head straight to work after putting me to bed. That was the whole cycle.
"So if we see a young person and their parents aren't there, we are open enough to ask some of these questions. Sometimes you get answers that were similar to a lot of our upbringings. I know from my own experience going through the cricket network, it's not set up to support lower socio-economic kids and understand some of those challenges. When you live it, you understand.
"When we did the mapping of the communities we wanted to get into and the Index of Multiple Deprivation, everything aligned. We knew we were going into some of those communities so we have to be really sensitive so we understand and support. We haven't put a manual on how it should be done, but all our staff have either worked consistently in those environments or come from those environments. That knowledge is deep-rooted with our team."
Even players who have moved on to the professional ladder, enjoying all the trappings of associations with a first-class county, return to ACE sessions, including England Under-19 Davina Perrin, who is aligned to the ECB's Central Sparks hub in the West Midlands, as well as Birmingham Phoenix in The Hundred.
It is important to note, those gaining access to cricket through ACE, for the first time or otherwise, are not exclusively black. The south London hub, for example, is reflective of the local community, with contingents of Portuguese and Eastern European among black British. That in itself has shown Rainford-Brent that striving for a more inclusive game comes through addressing issues around class.
"If you were to say to me focus on one thing - race or socio-economic, I would go socio-economic first. Because, actually, when you get to the communities that we're not getting to, they're all in the poorest areas. I saw the urgency with the black community, which is why I went with ACE.
"I think the bigger problem in cricket is really around class. I think that's the biggest. Don't get me wrong, racism exists in society and there are a lot of layers there. But when you look at the provision in low socio-economic areas, white working-class areas, etcetera - that is the void I want us to fill as a game. And I think if we did that, we would solve the race problem. We could solve the gender problem in terms of the diversity in the female game being really low. If we got into that one area, diversity would automatically flow. For me, that's the number one thing I want us to track. If we want to be the most inclusive game, that would solve a lot of our problems."
Such learnings are vital given what lies ahead. The Cricket Disciplinary Committee's racism trial is due in March, along with a report from the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) which should be published in the next couple of months. The ICEC report will be of particular interest given the volume of testimony around matters of race, sex and class is set to add darker clouds to those that remain over English cricket. The ECB has made a note of notifying counties of the scale of the findings given the heavy degree of scrutiny that will follow.
For someone like Rainford-Brent, both in her role with ACE and her status as a celebrated figure of the game, the ICEC findings will present both opportunity and challenge. That it will be overseen by incoming ECB chief executive Richard Gould, formerly of Surrey, and a key supporter of the ACE programme when initially launched as an initiative of the county, gives her confidence. Nevertheless, there will be a need to push forward while taking a deep breath during what will be a very public and very difficult national conversation.
"I kind of want the report to be out so we can get on with starting to really have those conversations. I feel like we've had a lot of those conversations over the last couple of years: Azeem Rafiq, Black Lives Matter. But I also feel there might be other areas we haven't put on as a priority that we may need to discuss.
"Me personally, I'm not prepared, to be honest. The only thing from our perspective that we're 'excited' about is we know there are areas of the game in terms of race and socio-economic class that can be solved. We are seeing day-to-day successes in those areas. But in terms of what it uncovers for the whole game, I'm not prepared yet.
"I don't worry what we all say in our cricket chambers as such. But there's no doubt what's happened over the last few years, there is a public impression of cricket. We don't want that and I think that is going to be the biggest challenge we're going to then have to face, is trying to recreate our brand as a sport."
As the first black woman to play for England and an accomplished broadcaster, Rainford-Brent will be called upon for both comment and solution. And though as above, she has ideas, it is a lot for one woman to bear. But it is abundantly clear few are as robust and in-tune with the matters at hand.
For the time being, her priority is fortifying ACE. The other findings of the investigations of Dr Fletcher and Dr Brown were the need for a more professional structure, which are being addressed. Things like fitness, nutrition and personal development plans are now in place, along with more ECB level four coaches, such as Donovan Miller of Essex who has international and franchise experience. In turn, ACE teams won 56 per cent of their fixtures in 2022.
Female representation remains an issue, with just 33 per cent across their community hubs. Plans are in place for improving that to 50-50 by adopting a more targeted approach to recruitment as well as female-only academies. Money, as ever, is the only real solution.
At present, ACE's yearly expenditure is £350,000, which comes out through grants from the ECB (£200,000 per annum for two years) and Sport England (£180,000 per annum for three years). Upscaling will cost an estimated £1 million a year.
Rainford-Brent ranks seeking funding as her weakest suit. Then again, given how she has excelled in her career, and in everything she puts her mind to, one assumes her floor is higher than most people's ceiling.
No doubt she will find a way, and in turn drag the game along with her. The boldness of creating ACE initially has only strengthened her enthusiasm to take cricket into the light.
"We often say, ACE stands for African-Caribbean Engagement but also Accelerated Change and Empowerment," she says. "We want to be that accelerator."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo