Rainford-Brent and Ace making progress while cricket awaits damning report | Cricket

There’s an iceberg looming over English cricket, and some day soon the sport is going to run slap-bang into it. The independent commission (ICEC) set up in 2021 is due to publish its report on Equity in Cricket “early in 2023”. The chair, Cindy Butts, has already said that they had a “staggering” response to their call for evidence about discrimination in the game, and, behind the scenes, the England and Wales Cricket Board, which has already lost three major sponsors, is bracing itself for the fallout, which it expects will involve an “intense degree of public scrutiny” and “a high degree of government criticism”.

You can get a taste of exactly how bad it is going to be from a document published by Bristol’s Mayoral Commission on Race Equality (Core), which was submitted as evidence to the ICEC. It includes allegations of “constant abuse and racism” aimed at two minority clubs and states that when it was reported “nothing was done” except that the players were “threatened by officials” for speaking out. It describes a culture in which minority-background players have “a palpable sense of unfairness and injustice” and a pervading belief that “non-white clubs are treated differently”.

The report also damns the ECB, and the gap between what it has promised and what it has achieved in recent years. “It is as though the ECB has pulled a lever to lead change across the game on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion nationally, but the lever isn’t actually connected to anything.” It describes cricket as a sport in which players are being driven out by prejudice, where parents are reluctant to let their children play “because they don’t want them to face the same issues”, and the local authorities are, in the large part, too “ill-equipped” and “under-resourced” to do anything about it. This is all in one submission. According to Butts, the ICEC had at least 4,000 more.

The Bristol Core report has exactly three good words for English cricket. One is for Gloucestershire’s decision to appoint David “Syd” Lawrence as president, another is for a new scheme launched by the county’s cricket foundation, and third is for the African Caribbean Engagement Programme, Ace, which was set up by Ebony Rainford-Brent in 2020. In an interview with the Guardian at the time Rainford-Brent explained that she was launching Ace because she was so sick of reading articles asking: “Where have the black players gone?” and wanted to actually do something about it. Three years later, she has.

Ace has just published its own report on the progress it has made so far. It has now expanded into six regions, has 141 academy scholars, training twice a week, and 44 of those are now also involved in county age-group cricket. Rainford-Brent’s aim was for Ace to concentrate on finding new talent and bringing it through into the county age groups. She’s succeeding. But her achievements go beyond that. The Core report specifically praises Ace’s broader impact in Bristol, and its work “using the wider game to support reconnection with the Black community”.

Ebony Rainford-Brent
Ebony Rainford-Brent set up the Ace programme in 2020 and is already seeing groundbreaking results. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Ace has reached 10,000 children. For the vast majority of them, it is their only experience of cricket. It is now working with 45 schools, 35 of which had not previously had any involvement with the sport. “We’re getting into areas and reaching kids that have not engaged in cricket at all,” Rainford-Brent says. “They’ve not had the exposure but now they have developed a massive love for the game.” Ace isn’t just about getting kids into the first-class cricket pathway, she says, but also about “helping cricket reconnect with communities that have been disengaged from it”. They are now also developing umpires, coaches, and volunteers as well as players.

When Rainford-Brent started Ace, they imagined the game was going to be a hard sell. It turned out the opposite was true. “I think that’s been our biggest shock,” she says. People want to play. They just need the right opportunity. There are no barriers at Ace. All you need to do is contact them, and they’ll tell you where your nearest session is. In traditional cricket, there’s a lot of selection processes and pathways. At Ace you don’t need to be affiliated to any school or any programme. Come along, get seen. And then from there, we’ll try and find the appropriate cricket for you.”

Rainford-Brent wants to expand into other communities. Ace is already working with a lot of white working-class kids. “I think the bigger problem in cricket is really around class. Don’t get me wrong, racism exists in society, there are a lot of layers there, but when you look at the provision in low socioeconomic areas, that is the void I want us to fill. And I think if we did that we would solve the race problem and we would solve the gender problem. I think if we get into those areas diversity would automatically flow. And so for me, that’s the No 1 thing I want us to crack.”

She is worried about the ICEC report, but most of all, Rainford-Brent is fed-up of waiting for it. “I just want it to be here so we can work out what the game has got to do next,” she says. “From our perspective we know that these problems, with race, socioeconomic class, gender can all be solved, because we’re seeing day-to-day successes in all those areas.”

The ECB has a new chair, Richard Thompson, and a new CEO, Richard Gould. Rainford-Brent worked closely with both at Surrey and in the early days of Ace. She says they “get it”. She believes that now they are in charge things are going to be very different. There has been a lot of talk in recent years, and there is going to be an awful lot more. While everyone else is busy fretting about the game, Rainford-Brent is getting on with fixing it. “I think,” she says, “the game is ready to solve this.”

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