Sophia Dunkley struck an unbeaten 74 on her Test debut last month
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When Sophia Dunkley became the first black woman to play Test cricket for England last month, it was a moment of celebration, but also one tinged with sadness. Why, more than 40 years since the first black man earned the same accolade, had it taken this long for a woman?
"To think that we’re in 2021, is a bit mind-blowing," Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to represent England, when she made her one-day international debut in 2007, said.
"There’s a lot of work to be done that’s not being done. There is a state of urgency about diversity within our game. This is no longer something that we should just want to improve, it is now urgent.
"If you compare for example when Roland Butcher [the first black man to play Test cricket for England] made his debut, in 1981, it was a similar time to Viv Anderson [the first black man to represent England] in football.
"If you see the shift in terms of diversity in the game of football through those years, compared to the decline in cricket, it tells you that we need to do something to change the way that our game attracts and retains people from different backgrounds. Those numbers just say to me a state of urgency, really."
Other than all-rounder Dunkley, of the 58 full-time professional women’s cricketers in England, the other black female player is Sunrisers and Middlesex’s Cordelia Griffith. "Why?" Rainford-Brent, repeats the question, exhaling deeply.
"It’s such a complex answer. With women’s sport, it has not always been evaluated with the same lens [as men’s sport], and maybe the same pressures. So, for many years, early on, the narrative has been that it’s just great to see the women playing. And now I think that the professional era is coming we are starting to see more criticism of the players, and stuff like that.
"But I still don’t think that we’ve got to the point where all areas of the game are being analysed, or reviewed in deeper detail to find the deeper problems. I think almost because the women’s game is seen to be progressive in some areas, [the lack of black women] has just been missed."
Ebony Rainford-Brent is a broadcaster and more recently chair of the African Caribbean Engagement Programme charity
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The dearth of black women playing cricket at the highest level isn’t something that Dunkley, as she rose through the ranks, had considered all that much.
"To be honest, I hadn’t actually processed it before I played," observes Dunkley, who struck an unbeaten 74 on her Test debut, and could help England secure a series victory over India in the final T20 on Wednesday evening in Chelmsford. "It’s a little bit strange to take it in. It’s only when you take a step back, it’s only then that you realise that maybe it is a big moment in sport."
Raised in a single-parent household by her mother, Dunkley was introduced to cricket by her neighbour, Zach, a boy of a similar age. Both Dunkley and Rainford-Brent have thrived and excelled, both as players and for the latter as a broadcaster and more recently the chair of the African Caribbean Engagement Programme charity, ACE. Yet they are also, clearly, remarkable exceptions. ACE, Rainford-Brent hopes, will help change that.
"On the flip side, I think it can be a positive [that the lack of black women in cricket has never been scrutinised]," continues Rainford-Brent. "The women’s game is more mobile because it doesn’t have as many layers as the men’s game. What I genuinely believe with all these frustrations is that it could change really quickly.
"Because the rate of growth of the women’s game at the grassroots is quick. Therefore, if you introduce cricket to these areas and make it attractive to different groups, your rate of growth will be really quick.
"It’s about having targeted, laser-focused efforts, and creating a system. When [ACE] first hosted our academy days, we only had 17 per cent girls turn up compared to boys. So we said to our coaches, we need to do more work focusing on going to more girls in school, and we decided to weight it as targeting 60 per cent girls. And what did we then see in the attendance at [the ACE] development hubs? More than 40 per cent of girls.
"This is what has been really fun about doing this ACE programme. As much as we say that there are all these barriers, when we get people out there, which is what happened to me as a kid, and you tell them that this is something that could be for you, show them a couple of people at the top of the game who look a bit like them, and make it accessible and fun, you get results."
One of those role models is Dunkley, also an ACE ambassador. "It’s funny," muses Dunkley. "Sometimes of course I do feel, why is this different to any other player [making their Test debut]? But then, you see the attention on trying to get more young girls and boys to play, and actually, it’s such a small thing on my part, only a couple of minutes out of my day, that if just answering a few more questions does make an impact then it’s no bother at all."
Neither, it appears, is scoring runs, which Dunkley, who followed up her impressive Test debut with a maiden ODI fifty this month, will no doubt be doing for some time to come.