Kids get coached in batting as part of Surrey's African Caribbean Engagement (ACE) programme

Kids get coached at an ACE event at The Oval

Jordan Mansfield / © Surrey CCC/Getty Images

Feature

The ACE programme is helping Black players stay in love with the game in England

One year on, Ebony Rainford-Brent's project has made a lot of progress, but there are still several barriers to break down

Valkerie Baynes  |  

During Black History Month in 2020, the African Caribbean Engagement (ACE) programme launched as an independent charity aimed at reversing an alarming drop in the number of Black people involved in cricket over the past 25 years. One year on, we look at what the organisation has achieved, those it has helped and what lies ahead

The players
Kieron Buchanan thought he was done with cricket.

Still in his teens, having spent half his life playing in Warwickshire age-group sides, he missed out on one of the county's rookie contracts last year and didn't know what was next for him.

"Cricket was the thing from birth," Buchanan says. "My uncle played cricket, my dad played cricket, most of my family's from Jamaica - everyone there plays cricket - so when I was born, I was surrounded by cricket 24/7."

Buchanan, an 18-year-old allrounder who bowls pace, speaks positively about his time with Warwickshire, saying he was surrounded by quality coaching and "great" people. And the story of a young player not making it as a pro first time around isn't unique. But by joining the ACE academy he now has a clear pathway back towards his dream of becoming a professional cricketer.

"I was thinking: 'Is this me done? Is this me finished with cricket? Am I going to get another chance?'," Buchanan says.

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Since joining the programme, briefly in London and now back home in Birmingham, Buchanan has focused on improving his strength and conditioning, given the sway that fitness numbers hold before counties even look at a player's technique. He has also enjoyed access to new coaches, who are able to cast fresh eyes over his game and to whom he can relate as he aims to secure trials with various counties.

"I got to improve my game in ways that I didn't think I could, seeing different things that I wouldn't see or someone at my club wouldn't see because they've seen me so long," Buchanan says. "It was good to see there's different people out there with different experiences that could help me.

"And seeing familiar faces of a Black person playing cricket that I can talk to about certain things, that I probably wouldn't be able to talk to about with someone else of a different race, it was comfortable. I felt at home."

Buchanan has also started on his Level One coaching course through ACE.

"The amount of effort people are putting into me makes me feel like I can't just give up," he says. "I can't just let people who have been helping me since I was young down by just stopping cricket. All the time and effort I've put in myself, it would be a waste of all that hard work."

Kieron Buchanan wasn't sure he had a future in cricket when he wasn't offered a rookie contract by Warwickshire, but the ACE programme has helped him consider a long-term career in the game

Kieron Buchanan wasn't sure he had a future in cricket when he wasn't offered a rookie contract by Warwickshire, but the ACE programme has helped him consider a long-term career in the game Chanielle Abdullie / © ACE Programme

Former England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent, the ACE programme's founder, suggests Buchanan is not alone in having his connection to cricket restored. She tells the story of another 18-year-old, Marcus Scotland, who has been trialling for a number of counties after almost being lost to the sport.

"He had been part of junior county set-ups, a very, very talented young person," Rainford-Brent says. "He ended up falling out of the structure for various reasons - I'll say both on his side and the system. It was a challenge.

"When ACE set up, our director of programmes sought him out and he was maybe not interested because he'd fallen out of love and [given] how things had played out. To see him re-engage, almost reluctantly early on, with ACE and then fall back in love with the sport, and then this summer we watched him churning out hundreds and trialling for different academies and really chasing his dream again. The talent level that he's got, he can play professional cricket.

"ACE is trying to break down those barriers and keep that love for talent that exists. We don't want talent to fall out of the game."

The vision
A year since launching as an independent charity, ACE has expanded from 25 kids to 75 in its London academy, set up additional centres in Birmingham and Bristol, and had well in excess of 2000 participants through its elite programmes, schools and community hubs and trials as well as securing a corporate sponsor, Royal London. Set up to address the 75% drop in participation among Black cricketers in England over the last quarter-century, ACE provides grassroots opportunities, talent pathways, elite programmes and coaching development.

Ebony Rainford-Brent:

Ebony Rainford-Brent: "ACE is trying to break down those barriers and keep that love for talent that exists. We don't want talent to fall out of the game" © PA Images via Getty Images

When it launched last October, it had just received more than half a million pounds worth of funding from Sport England and the ECB. The Black Lives Matter movement had been at the forefront of the news throughout the northern summer in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. Rainford-Brent and Michael Holding had spoken in heart-wrenching detail of their experiences of racism in cricket during their playing days and the West Indies side touring England performed the powerful gesture of taking a knee and raising gloved fists on the field before play.

It was at that point that Rainford-Brent's frustrations over the absence of opportunities for Black people and the lack of diversity within English cricket boiled over.

"There's a lot of talk about this every year or every two years, especially when West Indies roll into town," Rainford-Brent explains. "An article will come up: 'Where are the Black community in cricket?' We all know the problems, and there's no one who's gone 'Let's just solve this, not just for the Black community but other communities.' I just got to the point of thinking: 'What are we waiting for? Let's get moving.'"

While a lot has happened in a short while, Rainford-Brent is keen for the programme to expand further into Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds within the next year. She also hopes the work ACE has done can spark a holistic approach to the challenges faced by Black people wanting to be involved with cricket. Those include a lack of infrastructure in big city centres, and therefore access to facilities, and a misunderstanding of cultural differences, particularly once players enter the elite levels.

ACE's director of programmes says that while there are a lot of Black and Asian Level Two coaches, Level Three or Four courses were

ACE's director of programmes says that while there are a lot of Black and Asian Level Two coaches, Level Three or Four courses were "very much an old boys' club" Jordan Mansfield / © Surrey CCC/Getty Images

"I feel hopeful because I've seen so much change in a short space of time," she says. "I'm still waiting to see a big picture that breaks down how we're going to create alternative pathways. I know the change is happening but we keep saying we're five to ten years away - with the work that we're doing anyway - of being pleased with the amount of progress we want to see in this space."

Rainford-Brent says the No. 1 problem affecting not just young Black players but also players from white working-class backgrounds is a dearth of junior clubs and playing programmes in inner-city environments. ACE has begun working with private schools in and around areas like London to use their, often excellent, cricket facilities. It was a case of not necessarily having to throw money at the problem but sharing resources.

The situation had become so bad in Birmingham that participation in cricket among the Black community was almost non-existent when ACE set up there.

"London is thriving really quickly because there was still a bit more interest," Rainford-Brent says. "Birmingham has been one of those where we realised that if you do not invest and leave it for 20-25 years, it can fall to complete zero. And what's fascinating for me is that Birmingham is one of the most diverse cities in the country. It's almost like refuelling the community from the ground up... it's taken a year for just starting to get the love back, letting this community know this is not a programme that's going to disappear."

Another major barrier occurs once players are in the performance system.

Sophia Dunkley is the first Black cricketer to play women's Tests for England

Sophia Dunkley is the first Black cricketer to play women's Tests for England Ashley Allen / © Getty Images

"Getting selected at each level then starts to layer in with other things around biases and misunderstandings and stuff like that," she says. "If you come down to ACE, you would most probably see a very different environment to your traditional performance environment, because there's a different way of culturally expressing yourself. Sometimes that gets misunderstood as a problem rather than actually realising it's a richness, a different way of being. That's where the education comes in."

The coaches
The success of Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan and Sophia Dunkley - who are all ambassadors for ACE - gives aspiring Black cricketers a number of current role models. But it's not only players who can be, or who need, heroes they can identify with, according to Chevy Green, ACE's director of programmes, who oversees player and coaching pathways, as well as programmes to encourage more Black people to become involved in the sport as volunteers.

ACE has been working with the ECB to diversify its coaching course intake. Of the 17 people recently enrolled in an ECB coaching course, 11 were directly linked to the ACE programme. The whole aim is to address the lack of Black coaches at county level and, in turn, inspire more youngsters from Black communities to become involved in cricket.

Green cites the example of Donovan Miller, who has helped coach teams to success in the CPL, South Africa's T20 competition, and the Global T20 in Canada, but who has struggled to gain work in England.

Rainford-Brent says 18-year-old Marcus Scotland, who was coaxed back into the game by ACE, has the talent to go pro

Rainford-Brent says 18-year-old Marcus Scotland, who was coaxed back into the game by ACE, has the talent to go pro Chanielle Abdullie / © ACE Programme

"We strongly say, 'You can't be what you can't see', and unfortunately in cricket, there's not many Black and Asian coaches at the grassroots level and definitely not at the professional level," Green says.

"From the Black and the Asian community, there's a lot of Level Two coaches, which is fantastic. But before, it was quite a closed window to get on a Level Three or Four course. It was very much an old boys' club. Through ACE, we're just trying to get through as many doors as we can."

One problem has been accessing higher-level coaching courses; unless you are a coach already working in the county system, you often don't even hear that a course is on. Then there are the practicalities of travelling to rural areas, where courses are generally run, while working or studying in the city, despite London having venues that could host courses.

A shift towards more online learning during the pandemic has helped and ACE is working to provide more access to coach training within the cities where it operates.

Buchanan (behind the stumps) coaching kids:

Buchanan (behind the stumps) coaching kids: "It's like a reminder, yes, I'm playing for myself, but I'm also playing for the kids that I'm inspiring to play after me" Chanielle Abdullie / © ACE Programme

But where are the role models?

"Just like on the playing side, professional players who have left the game, if they're not seeing any other coaches getting any opportunities, a lot of them will think - and I've heard some of them say it - 'What's the point of me doing a coaching course or getting a Level Four?,'" Green says.

"If they're not feeling they're going to get offered a fair chance with a county, they say, 'What am I wasting my time and effort and money [for]?'

"We're helping broker some conversations, being that middle person that has access to coaches within the community and the ECB, who are putting on these courses."

In Buchanan's case, studying for his coaching qualifications offers a future beyond playing, but it also has an impact on his game right now.

"Being able to see myself in the other little kids, the enthusiasm and the excitement to do something new, find out if they like it," he says. "Even if they don't, if they know someone that would like it, they will tell their friends. That's what I really enjoy about it.

"It's like a reminder every time I'm playing, yes, I'm playing for myself, but I'm also playing for the kids that I'm inspiring to play after me, and their kids, if they want to play as well."

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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