Their passionate and powerful exchange about Black Lives Matter and diversity in cricket that opened last year’s international summer on Sky Sports has brought a flurry of awards.
Here the central figures in the debate, Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent, join Sportsmail’s Nasser Hussain to discuss the impact of their broadcast and what happened next. Cricket correspondent Paul Newman was in the chair.
Ebony Rainford-Brent has moved seamlessly from playing for England to being a pundit on Sky
Rainford-Brent and Michael Holding spoke passionately and openly about ending racism
Paul Newman: Your coverage ahead of England’s series against West Indies was the best opening to any sports broadcast I have seen. How did it come about and did you expect it to have the impact it did?
Ebony Rainford-Brent: It was a shock to me. I thought it might tank. My experience has always been that this is not a subject people have wanted to give much time and attention to and I thought they’d think: ‘Can we get on with the cricket?’ So I’m so pleased it has allowed so many conversations to happen. I thought we would say what we did and then it would be forgotten, so to see what has happened since is pretty crazy.
Michael Holding: A lot of things created a perfect storm. There was the death of George Floyd in America. There was Covid, which gave people the time to contemplate all that was going on. Then Ebony joined Sky and bared her soul in a cricket department meeting we had before the summer.
That inspired our boss Bryan Henderson to do something and when I got to England, I was ready. Absolutely ready. And the last piece of the jigsaw was the rain before the first day of the Test series which gave us time to expand and delve deeper.
Nasser Hussain: When Ebony spoke at our meeting, the whole room fell silent. It was just such a powerful statement. Then on that opening day we saw the video these two had put together before they crossed over to us live and I heard Mikey say to Ian Ward: ‘I’ve got a fair bit to say here.’
From that moment I just wanted to keep my head down and be respectful because I knew how important and incredible what Mikey had to say was. We should mention Ian Ward here. A lot of hosts would have butted in but he just let Mikey go.
Holding: I actually went to thank him afterwards. Ian allowed me to say what I had to say. He didn’t interrupt. He didn’t ask me what I meant. He just let me get on with it. It’s something that’s been inside me for a long time. It wasn’t something I had to write down and script. It was all there in my head.
Rainford-Brent: I couldn’t watch it when the guys were on that platform talking at the Ageas Bowl. I was upstairs and turned the sound down. It was just too emotional. I turned my Twitter off because I was concerned about the reaction but then, Nasser, you told me to switch it back on because it had all become pretty big.
Holding: It was Wardy who said to me afterwards, ‘What next? You can’t just leave it there?’ And then Thierry Henry got my number and called me. I knew him as a great footballer but I never expected to speak to him. So now I’ve put it all down in a book (Why we Kneel, How we Rise to be published by Simon and Schuster this summer) and there’s a lot more structure to that. I can’t wait for it to hit the shelves.
Rainford-Brent: I’ve never had a lot of confidence in talking about race. It’s a difficult subject and one that I still get nervous about. But I’d been talking to Mikey before we did this and in one text he said to me, ‘This is the time to talk. This is the time to do it.’ Mikey was ready and he helped me to feel empowered. He opened up that conversation.
George Floyd’s killing brought the Black Lives Matter cause to the forefront of people’s minds
Holding: You’ve hit on a significant point Ebs. I talked to a lot of people for my book and (Olympic legend) Michael Johnson said to me: ‘It is hard to deal with this on your own.’ Michael said: ‘We have company now.’
Newman: So we are nearly a year on from the death of George Floyd and your broadcast. What did come next? Has there been change?
Holding: A lot has changed. Just look at people worldwide who have been taking part in demonstrations for Black Lives Matter. In the days of Martin Luther King they were 99 per cent black. Now it’s 50-50 black and white, young and old. People have finally realised racism cannot continue.
And it’s not just on the streets. Big organisations with big money are getting on board. There’s a lot of rubbish spoken about BLM being a political movement. It’s a humanitarian movement. Times are changing. The wheels are turning.
Hussain: Mikey, last week a footballer, Wilfried Zaha, didn’t take a knee before a Crystal Palace game. What did you think of that and is it time to move on from that gesture?
Holding: Initially I thought he was wrong, but a friend of mine in the UK sent me the things Zaha has said. He doesn’t just want to take a knee for the sake of it. He wants to see action. What’s the point of everyone taking a knee if nothing happens? From that point of view I completely agree with him.
Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League player to stop taking a knee before matches
People in sport can do all these things but sport alone cannot change anything. It’s society that has to change.
Rainford-Brent: I don’t expect people in sport to carry on taking a knee for ever. I felt with the England cricket team last year when they played West Indies that it became a bit tokenistic. I won’t point a finger at anyone not taking a knee now. It has to be about action.
Newman: Ebony, you launched the Afro Caribbean Engagement programme at the start of last year with Surrey to get more black kids playing cricket again. How is that going?
Rainford-Brent: We are changing the narrative. I had read so many articles saying black kids are not interested in cricket any more that I started believing it myself. But when we launched ACE, the phone did not stop ringing.
What we heard then was people saying: ‘We are still interested, but we don’t think the game has reached out to us.’
And as soon as we started we saw what talent there was out there. It proved to me that the black community really are still interested in cricket but the challenge was to provide opportunities for them.
Holding thinks the narrative about West Indian children losing interest in cricket is misguided
Things got exciting very quickly and we’re talking to a lot of counties now about getting on board. In five or six years we won’t be saying: ‘Where are the black cricketers?’ We will be where we need and expect to be.
Newman: Nasser, you have always talked about the diversity you saw when you were young at your dad’s cricket school in Ilford. So many black and Asian kids. Why have we lost them?
Hussain: We certainly have lost many of them. I played with people like Chris Lewis, Devon Malcolm, Phillip DeFreitas, Gladstone Small and Dean Headley. The list was endless. At my dad’s school you would see a West Indian net, an Indian one, a Pakistani one etc.
We have moved away from that for a number of reasons, which is why what Ebony is doing is so important. Diversity is not thinking: ‘We’ve got Ebony as part of the Sky team now, box ticked.’
It’s about having people from different communities involved who have been there and done it. We all know what Ebony has been through in life and in cricket, so she is qualified to do something about it.
Holding: This theory that kids from West Indian backgrounds have lost interest in cricket has been exaggerated. I remember reading a story about Theo Walcott when he was at Arsenal. It said: ‘Even he prefers football and he’s a nephew of the great Clyde Walcott.’ The man is no relation to Sir Clyde. There are far too many false narratives like that.
Rainford-Brent feels there is a wealth of untapped potential in areas with lots of black Britons
Rainford-Brent: There’s another myth that black kids are not interested now because the West Indies are not as good as they were.
Well, my mum is from Jamaica but she didn’t like cricket at all. I didn’t engage with it until someone put a bat in my hand and said: ‘Whack the ball with that.’
I look at cricket’s talent pathways and they just don’t exist in the communities where black British kids are. Compare that to football, athletics and even rugby. They have better systems and structures than we do.
Newman: We have seen Azeem Rafiq accuse Yorkshire of institutionalised racism. Another experienced player in Michael Carberry said racism is rife in our cricket. Sportsmail launched an investigation in September into the lack of diversity at county level among players, coaches and in boardrooms and the results were shocking. The ECB are talking about fining counties if things don’t improve. Is that the answer?
Rainford-Brent: I’ve never been a fan of fines or quotas. It’s more a question of behavioural change. I don’t think fines help create an inclusive culture. I know there is still racism in our game from my own experiences and from talking to cricketers and their families.
Michael Carberry helped me when I was going through some really bad stuff actually. He was the first person I went to and he helped me get through it. It’s in society, so our game is not immune to it. I’m not sure you can totally eliminate unconscious bias from people because we like similarity.
Azeem Rafiq is one of a number of players who has spoken about suffering racism in the sport
But what you can do is create structures and systems that are healthy. I understand what the ECB are trying to do but there’s a lot more action that can be done rather than ticking boxes.
Holding: The game can do more, but without society changing it won’t matter a great deal. If the England side consisted of 11 black players, society would have to accept that. Cricket, football and all sports have to make themselves as diverse as they possibly can, but it cannot end there.
It has to seep out into society. What I’ve tried to look at is why there are people in this world who still think one race is better than another. That’s what we have to get rid of. It’s a long journey but we have to get there at some point.
Hussain: Yes, society has to change, but our sport has to reflect that change. If our game is all white, it won’t reflect society. I like the work being done at my county, Essex. Mikey knows the Akram family, who are heavily involved in cricket in my part of the world and Arfan Akram is working with kids in the east London community to get them playing and loving cricket.
We haven’t mentioned more girls playing cricket so far. My daughter plays and when she turns up for a game or turns on the TV I don’t want her to see all-male, white faces. I want her to see more female coaches, umpires and broadcasters. Gone are the days when the only women you saw at cricket were making the teas.
Newman: What more can cricket do? And are you all optimistic about the future?
Rainford-Brent: I do think the media have played a big part in the last year in keeping this conversation going and it’s vital we all keep on asking questions. That makes a difference.
Nasser Hussain is also keen to get more women and girls interested in playing and coaching
I know, Nasser, you have been keen not to take any credit for our broadcast, but one thing you said that day in Southampton has stuck with me. You said, ‘People have been looking away’ and that hit home. I do want that to be recognised because that was such a poignant part of all this. Nobody should ever look away.
Hussain: I was a bit reluctant to do this piece at first because it should be about you both, not me. That day at the Ageas Bowl will always be remembered for the powerful message that Mikey and Ebony put out. The key for us all now is not to get bullied by people who might read this or see us address it on TV in the future and say, ‘Not this again’.
Can I add one thing? And I hope Ebony doesn’t mind me saying this. But one of the very best things to come out of all this is recognition for Michael Holding. Mikey hasn’t just been named sports broadcaster of the year by the Sports Journalists’ Association and the Royal TV Society for that hour of television at the Ageas Bowl. It was because of what we have known for years: that Michael Holding was not only one of the greatest of all fast bowlers, but he’s an outstanding broadcaster.
Holding: Thank you, Nass, but I’m glad those awards came about because of BLM. I’m happy the focus is on that because that’s what people will remember. I’m very optimistic because I’m seeing change. We’ll never totally get rid of racism, just like we’ll never get rid of crime. But the less of both we have the better our society will be.
And as time goes on the more racists will be pushed into the background. If they don’t change they will get left behind and that’s what I’m looking for.
I keep on looking, reading and exploring and I’m seeing a lot of good things happening. Black people alone cannot get rid of racism. We need help from white people too. And I see it happening — in sport and society.