During an online event, hosted by former England captain David Gower, one of the guests revealed an astonishing stat. In response to a question that I personally happened to submit (watch the question and reponse by clicking HERE>), cricket journalist George Dobell revealed that, in 2019, 800 children came to trials at Edgbaston, but just one of those was from an African-Caribbean background. It is then quite significant when, after holding just two days of trials, the ACE programme attracted 100 children from the African-Caribbean community. So why, when left to its own accord, is the game failing to attract participants from this community? The ACE programme, an independent charity, aims to change this and provide the all-important initial opportunity, that otherwise might not exist. Open to all ethnicities, the programme is unique in that it hopes to identify and engage talent specifically within the African and Caribbean communities, in order to provide them with elite academy programmes and scholarships.
Cricket has seen a 75% decline in Black player participation. Recreationally, this sits at an absurdly low 1%[i]. The ACE programme was set up specifically to address this decline[ii]. “We can’t start any lower, really,” says Chevanis (Chevy) Green, the ACE Programme Director. He’s half joking, but also completely serious. The programme was the brainchild of former Surrey and England women’s legend Ebony Rainford-Brent. The first Black woman to play for England (and as Chevy would put it, the first lady of ACE), Ebony is now on the Surrey CCC board and the current Director of Women's Cricket. Working alongside the now outgoing Surrey Chief Executive Richard Gould, Ebony presented her ideas to the performance department at Surrey, which included Chevy. “I wasn’t sold straight away. I didn’t really have the trust in the current cricket set up to want to take on a programme like this. If you’ve got a demographic and, over years, you keep seeing it drop…if you have all this information and do you nothing about it…you’ve created the problem.” Time progressed and so did Chevy’s willingness to take on what was being proposed. “Ebony and I spoke a bit more about the programme and I got more involved.” It wasn’t all smooth sailing, to begin with. Support, especially from the ECB, wasn’t exactly forthcoming. “The ECB are more calculated in their approach. They need a lot more detail.” This was detail that perhaps didn’t exist at the time, so Chevy, Ebony and the team had to go it alone and they weren’t going to let anybody stop them. “We’re quite bullish, a bit aggressive, in how we work. We just go for it and get it done.”
Chevy was born, bred and still resides in, South London, which is home to a large African and Caribbean community. Having been in the Surrey system from a young age and coming up to 8 years employed at the club in various development roles, Chevy and the rest of the ACE team understand the issues on the ground. “It always seemed, if you were Black or Asian, you were one of the kids to be left out, particularly kids that went to state school. You had a class divide and a colour divide.” Culturally, Chevy also see issues within the community, perhaps even created by the game itself. “The African Caribbean community – they’re out there. Maybe they haven’t necessarily felt cricket was a game for them, but since we’ve been doing this, we’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm. I’m inundated with phone calls and emails about being part of ACE and what ACE can offer, from all parts of the country, which is fantastic.” The success of the programme, even in its short COVID-hit stint so far, is a
testament to the appetite that the community has for cricket. All it’s taken to discover this appetite is to reach out to them. “Connecting is massive…Once you relate to them, there is interest. They just didn’t think it was a place they could even approach, which is sad. All it takes is a few people caring, giving up a bit of time, to make that connection, to make that real difference.” This relatability doesn’t stop with just providing the opportunity. It runs all the way through the D.N.A of the programme. From the coaches to the environment, they have created. “Our sessions are high performing, but we have music on. The way we talk to the players is much more relatable. Some of them might come in with a doo-rag, someone might walk in with their hood up. How we talk to them, how they may respond to us, we don’t take offence to that. Cricket needs to diversity itself, at all levels. [Otherwise], young Asian and Black boys and girls are not going to feel welcome.”
The ACE programme isn’t just about diversifying cricket. Of course, this is at the heart of what they’re doing. But there’s so much more to this fantastic charity. “ACE stands for African Caribbean Engagement, but we also say ‘Accelerated Change Empowerment’. We want to empower young people on our programmes to do better and achieve what they can. Whatever that may be.” It's that simple offer of opportunity that is so important. With ACE, it’s not just about the game, but also what the game can provide. “One young man is passionate about journalism and poetry so we’re trying to get him some work experience, through the media contacts that we have.”
The stop-start nature of the last year hasn’t been great for ACE, or for the rest of the country for that matter. But, with a slightly clearer path forward, it is hoped that they can build on what they have, to continue making a difference. And what they have is an amazing platform to change the game of cricket, which they’re already beginning to do. Chevy reels off the successes with pride. “We’ve had a young man who’s now training with the under 18s, we’ve got two Surrey under 13s and one at under 12s.” The ACE programme have big plans for 2021 and beyond. With two more open days planned for June and another coming up in Birmingham, there could well be some brand-new talent coming to a county ground near you, very soon.
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