Embracing the game
By Colin Babb, writing from London
As a young schoolgirl in London, Ebony Rainford-Brent had a distinctly unimpressed view of cricket.
As she recalls, unlike some Caribbean diaspora households in Britain, her family rarely discussed or thought about the sport.
“I didn’t really grow up with cricket at home,” she says. “My mum got a bit excited if the West Indies were playing, but she wasn’t really a cricket fan.”
Ebony viewed cricket as being “all about grown men standing in a field wearing dodgy white clothing”.
However, at the age of 11, following a visit by a cricket project to her school, she began to slowly embrace the game.
Ebony describes herself as “starting out as a right-hand fast bowler who bowled at a good pace”.
After fighting back against serious injuries - she didn’t play competitive cricket for nearly three years - Ebony began to fully realise her talent for run scoring and bowling.
Ebony’s achievements include being the first black woman to play for the England Women’s team.
She was a member of the squad that won the 2009 Women’s Cricket World Cup in Australia.
When Caribbean Intelligence© met Ebony, she reflected on these events with an enormous sense of satisfaction and a beaming smile.
During her injury layoff, Ebony was encouraged by her brother to “stop buying into what people were saying” and get back to playing.
She then set herself two challenges and wrote them in pen on her bedroom wall.
“My first goal was to play at least one game for England and retire. So winning the World Cup with England was amazing.
“I was bed-ridden for most of the first year of my injury and had to leave university. So my other goal was to go back to university and get a Master’s degree in chemistry, which I did.”
Caribbean Intelligence© asked Ebony a question we’ve been asking some of our diaspora interviewees: how would you describe your identity and nationality, and how Caribbean do you feel?
“My mum is Jamaican and came over to Britain when she was 13. I was born and bred in South London, but up to the age of 14 or 15, I felt a lot more Caribbean,” she told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“There was always West Indian music in the house and I was around my family being immersed in Caribbean culture. The food I ate at home was also Caribbean, as I ate my mum’s cooking!
“My dad is African American, but I didn’t really grow up with him, so I consider my family background to be Jamaican.
“I have dual nationality, as I have a British and an American passport.
“I don’t really feel American, but I’m quite proud to have dual citizenship and visit America to see my Jamaican family who live there.”
Ebony says that her personal journey as a cricketer in England influenced the way she began to think about herself and her identity.
“As I got older and started to play cricket, get into the English cricket structure, integrate with other people more, travel more and eat a range of different food, there was a transition and a journey to where I am now.
“I now truly feel 50% English and 50% Caribbean and honoured to have both sides of what I am – English and Caribbean!”
Playing in the West Indies
Ebony told Caribbean Intelligence© about some verbal exchanges she had with the crowd while playing for England against West Indies in St Kitts in 2009.
“I remember being in St Kitts playing for England in the Warner Park stadium and some guys in the crowd were saying, ‘Hey, are you English? You’re not English! What are you doing?’
“Some of the crowd were really giving me grief, but I just laughed!
“I felt English and was focused on playing for England. But I did feel a bit weird, as I felt an underlying relationship with what they were trying to say to me.”
Ebony had the last laugh, as England won the match and she won the “man of the match” award for her batting display.
She scored 72 runs - her highest score for England and one of her personal career highlights.
A passion for cricket
Ebony identifies the moment she met Tony Moody, a South London-based cricket coach, “when I was 10 or 11,” as the start of her passion for cricket.
“He was my first ever coach and the way he talked about cricket was against everything I thought cricket was about.
“He was a Jamaican guy with a lot of energy and talked about cricket as being a fast-paced game.
“I got hooked on the game and went down to Stockwell [in south London] with some of the boys to play. I was the only girl, but that wasn’t a problem, as I grew up with three older brothers and was always playing sport.”
“I didn’t get too serious about cricket until I was 14 or 15,” Ebony says. “ I went on a coaching trip to Arundel in Sussex with Tony and some of the boys and was spotted there.
“I then got involved in some courses and junior women’s cricket for Surrey. Then I got a letter to play for the England women’s under-17 team.”
As Ebony’s cricket career developed, she became inspired by players at her club, Surrey.
These included Alex Tudor, one of the last players of Caribbean descent to play Test match cricket for England.
“Alex Tudor was my hero and now he’s a good friend of mine! He was a Surrey cricketer at the time and had a bit of a strut around the place.
I always looked up to him because he was a lively character, he was well known, and doing quite well. I identified with him because he had a Caribbean background and there weren’t any black female cricketers around to look up to,” Ebony recalls.
“My other hero was [England’s] Alex Stewart. He was at his prime then and I admired the fact that he always seemed so professional and carried himself so well.”
In 2012, Ebony retired from cricket after playing 22 one-day internationals and seven Twenty20 internationals for England.
As well as working as a cricket pundit for radio and television, Ebony told Caribbean Intelligence© that she is now motivated by a whole range of projects and interests.
One of her ambitions is to target “hard-to-reach” groups of kids, including girls and those of Caribbean descent, in the hope of encouraging them to play cricket.
“There is a lot to be done to engage kids with cricket, but I think it is possible to do it,” Ebony explains enthusiastically.
“I work for the Lord’s Taverners cricket charity and we try to connect with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and kids with disabilities and fund programmes that sometimes go into schools and communities.
I also work for Chance to Shine, who also do school cricket programmes. To engage kids with cricket, you have to reach out to them and put more cricket on their doorstep.” http://www.chancetoshine.org/
“A key thing for me is inspirational role models,” Ebony says.
“For example, as a female, if I see a woman on TV doing something, I might say that if a woman can do that then I can. It might inspire you.
“If I see a person of Caribbean descent doing something on TV, I can also relate to that person.
“Without role models, kids will think, well, if I’m going to play anything it’s going to be football, as it’s a bigger sport with more pizzazz, more glamour and more role models.”
“One of the programmes I’m working on has set up a club in Tottenham [north London]. We’ve set up projects with kids in Asian communities and they have been coming to them in droves.
“In Tottenham we’ve been working with, mainly, black kids and the project has taken longer to take off. The kids are not motivated initially, but they do come in once they get the hook.
“So I think there is an answer, but you have to put everything on site and get a coach who reflects the community.”
Back to her roots
Another one of Ebony’s growing interests is to discover her Jamaican ancestral past.
She began tracing her family tree in 2012 and is keen to find out more.
“I spoke to my grandma, who is 80- odd years old, and traced as many people as I could. My plan now is to go to Jamaica and find some more records and do some more research.
“When you’re playing sport, you become very single-minded. So when you step back after your career, you begin to ask yourself, ‘Who am I and what am I really like?’”
“I’ve got Caribbean connections in terms of family and culture, but I want to discover more. My mum always says to me that out of all her kids, I’m the one who is closer to being a Jamaican, and when I go to Jamaica, I’ll probably never come back!”
Caribbean Intelligence© met Ebony before the start of the ICC Champions Trophy cricket tournament in England. So we put her on the spot to make a prediction.
“You can’t rule out Pakistan or West Indies with Chris Gayle’s batting. But I’ll go for England on home soil on the assumption that KP [Kevin Pietersen] is playing. If he’s not playing, then I’ll go for India!”
Chance to Shine: http://www.chancetoshine.org/
The Lords Taverners: http://www.lordstaverners.org/