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Ebony Rainford-Brent: 'This summer has blown a lid off the problem'

Chair of Surrey's new ACE programme on how to overcome structural inequality in the English game

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Ebony Rainford-Brent is the chair of Surrey's ACE programme, first day, third Test, England v West Indies, Old Trafford, July 24, 2020

Ebony Rainford-Brent is the chair of Surrey's ACE programme  •  Getty Images

It was inevitable that, after a sun-baked lockdown, it would rain on the first scheduled day of Test cricket in England this summer - so much so that broadcasters Sky Sports had put together a package ready for the occasion.
But rather than archive highlights from previous Tests against the West Indies, or discussions about who should be England's third seamer, they instead showed a powerful segment shining a light on the game's problems. In the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in the USA, commentators Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent delivered testimonies of their experiences of racism, both in and outside cricket, and viewers hung on their every word; one clip of Holding has been viewed 6.8 million times on Twitter alone.
Sharing their experiences helped ensure that the conversation about institutional racism within the English game remained at the forefront of the summer. As Michael Carberry and Azeem Rafiq in particular delivered damning verdicts on the prejudices they faced, the ECB responded by facing up to "uncomfortable truths" and committed to delivering "meaningful and long-term change".
"This summer has blown a lid off the problem," Rainford-Brent told ESPNcricinfo at the launch of Surrey's ACE programme as an independent charity, following funding from Sport England and the ECB. "There was a point where some of us knew how bad the situation was but things were just bumbling around.
"What came out through the experiences of many players that spoke out meant we could start to unpick and say: well, there are no opportunities, there are no clubs. It just got to a stage this summer that it's got to be done. I've seen a cycle of articles in the media, maybe every two or three years, saying 'where are the black cricketers?' - maybe when West Indies come and tour - and it's a bit of a cycle. But the Black Lives Matter movement has made it urgent."
While there has been a sense in the past that the ECB have been willing to make the right noises publicly without necessarily driving change, their response to the structural problems raised this year seems different. Even at a time of cost-cutting - they announced last month that 62 jobs would be cut - they have put their money where their mouth is, helping to fund the ACE programme that Rainford-Brent has pioneered over the last 12 months.
"I've had some good conversations with Ian Watmore [chairman], Tom Harrison [chief executive] and Sanjay Patel [managing director, the Hundred] and they've shown that they want to get moving with this and make a difference," she said. "This is a really tough time for the world when jobs are being cut and people are going through tough times, but we have to start investing.
"We have three problems to solve," she explained. "The first is to simply increase the numbers; the next is to convert it, and we have to look at the individual. I have zero doubt that there is talent, but we have to understand the barriers and their needs. Finally, we have funding for three years, but for us to be here as a charity making a difference in 10, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years, we have to really be smart, have a good business structure and become sustainable.
"We want to accelerate change. I'm impatient: I've already got grey hairs, and as soon as I see them, I know time is ticking. I don't want to wait 25 years to see changes; I want to see them now."
As the first black woman to play for England, Rainford-Brent has ambitions to ensure that the programme has an equal impact among young men and women. At the programme's first trials, only 17% of participants were female, and only two out of the 25 players were invited to later training days.
"There aren't two black girls in any cricket academy in this country," said Chevy Green, the scheme's first director of programmes, "so the fact we launched this academy and found two black girls is something that should be celebrated." Indeed, since Rainford-Brent's last international appearance in 2010, only two BAME women have made England debuts: Sonia Odedra and Sophia Dunkley.
"At first, I think the important thing in the women's game was just to try and get participation up, and there was maybe nobody really making sure that was a diverse model," Rainford-Brent said. "The women's game needs more attention to be diverse than the men's. That seems a weird thing to say in some ways, because we've seen such a strong growth, but we haven't seen the growth in diversity.
"What's great about the men's team right now is that most people in society could see someone who represents them in a way: a northerner, a southerner, someone black, someone Asian, someone who went to a state or private school. As for the women's team, that's miles away."
Dunkley, who has been on the fringes of the England team in her career to date but impressed in intra-squad games this summer, has signed up to the ACE programme as an ambassador, but Rainford-Brent is wary of expecting her to be a standard-bearer and placing the hopes of a community on her alone.
"With players like Chris Jordan, Jofra Archer or Sophia, you just want them to play. Even though she wants to get involved I'm saying to her: 'you just doing your best is all we need'. You don't want them to feel a burden. Equally, I think athletes these days are a bit more socially conscious.
"Visibility is massive. With T20 and the Hundred, they could be a fast track for some players. Some of the measures we'll be looking at will be pace, power, and other things you can't teach like hand-eye co-ordination. I look at a couple of players: Sam Curran was 17 when he broke onto the scene at Surrey, and Shafali Verma is opening the batting for India at 16. If we find a 12-year-old tomorrow through the ACE programme, they could be doing that in four or five years.
"Is it down to me? On paper, no - this is something the game should have done. But I've run out of patience. I've hit that point. I don't want people to expect us to create a mini Jofra Archer or Sophia Dunkley tomorrow, but if we get the grounding right, then that will follow."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98