Ebony Rainford-Brent says she turned off her social media in anticipation of a backlash against her video on racism in cricket and wider society with Michael Holding last summer.
Rainford-Brent, who has been made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to cricket and charity, spoke powerfully in the video about the abuse she was subjected to during her playing days and about the Black Lives Matter movement, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the United States earlier that year.
It aired on Sky Sports on the opening day of the first Test between England and the West Indies, and Rainford-Brent recalled: “I thought it was going to tank, with the way Twitter is and cancel culture at the moment.
“I was really nervous about us doing that piece. I turned off all my social media and I thought that most people would just say ‘we’re not interested, we’ve been sports-starved because of the pandemic, why do we want to listen to you guys talk about that when we want to watch the cricket?'”
Instead, Rainford-Brent described the response to it as “mind-blowing”. The video led to Sky’s coverage of the first Test winning a Bafta award last week.
She added: “It showed me that the world is ready to talk about these sorts of issues and I think that’s why the piece was received well, because maybe it wasn’t in your consciousness and the piece brought it to your consciousness. Or it was something you cared about but maybe didn’t have a chance to speak about, and (it showed that) you could.”
As well as her commentary work for Sky and the BBC, the 37-year-old former England international is the chair of the African Caribbean Engagement (ACE) programme which was set up by Surrey to address the steep decline in cricket participation among members of the black community.
In October last year its work was supported via a £540,000 grant from Sport England, and now works with the black community in London, Birmingham and Bristol.
“We’re seeing really positive effects for the game and I can’t wait for our first player to make it through the system,” she said.
Asked whether the environment for young black girls and boys had improved from the harrowing experience she recounts in the Sky video, she said: “I would like to say we have moved on. But I don’t think we have enough, and working with young people I think there are still challenges.
“They are less overt than in my generation but there are still biases and stereotypes and the young people feel that and they feel misjudged.
“What I would say though is that the culture for listening is better, so now I know that if there is an issue or a challenge there is a space to start talking about these issues.”
She believes cricket still lacks anywhere near enough diversity in positions of power.
“That’s the one that needs a lot of work,” she said.
“There has been change – the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) is bringing in Baroness Amos which I hope will have an impact.
“I think we need to bring in new voices who are leaders in other spaces. If you don’t have people in positions of power these conversations don’t really embed.”
Rainford-Brent, who is also a trustee of the Chance To Shine charity, came through the ranks at Surrey, settling on cricket as her chosen sport after excelling at football and basketball.
She admits one of the initial attractions was the settings cricket took her to, and the strategic nature of the sport.
“I remember going to Arundel Castle in Sussex and it was beautiful. I remember thinking ‘this is so different to our environment’,” she said.
“I was used to inner-city London, going to Brixton market, and I just remember realising there was a whole other world.”
Her talent took her around the world and into the England set-up, and she was part of the side which claimed the World Cup, World Twenty20 and retained the Ashes within the space of three months.
A career-threatening back injury at the age of 19 was the making of her though, she now admits.
“I fell into a pretty dark place, there was a bit of depression,” she said.
“I was bed-ridden and thought my whole world had been lost. It genuinely felt like a couple of years of my life got sucked out.
“I think that’s why sports is such a teacher really. You learn about resilience, digging deep and I think to come back has given me so much character development for life.
“That was definitely the lowest part of my whole time as a player. But equally, I would say it’s the best experience in hindsight because it’s given me so much.”
On the successes of 2009, she said: “That was definitely a peak. Beating the Aussies Down Under, it doesn’t get better than that.”