England news March 22, 2017

Ratcliffe fears death of county game if T20 gamble fails

Jason Ratcliffe feels the T20 debate has rarely escaped the ECB's inner sanctum © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Jason Ratcliffe, formerly second in command at the Professional Cricketers Association, has warned of "the huge gamble" English cricket is taking with the introduction of a new-team T20 competition.

Ratcliffe was on the steering group in the developmental stages of the proposed competition in 2015 before stepping down as assistant chief executive of the PCA at the end of last year after 14 years with the organisation.

He feels there has been a lack of discussion "outside inner cricketing circles" ahead of an important vote that "will forever change the landscape of English cricket."

"I care very much about our game," Ratcliffe told ESPNcricinfo. "And, having sat on numerous ECB committees and structure reviews, as well as having played county cricket for 15 years, I feel I've a deep understanding of the issues.

"The situation is that attendances at our existing T20 competition, the NatWest Blast, have grown 63 per cent in the last four years, where the 'appointment to view' principle has been proven to have worked and where our domestic competitions produced a good enough side for us to reach the final of the most recent World T20.

"But we seem to be turning our back on that success and embracing a high-risk strategy that involves new teams and new identities. If the same money went into marketing the existing competition and brands as we are expecting to be invested in the new one, we could make something special and inclusive."

Ratcliffe fears for the future of county cricket if the gamble goes awry.

"There is no halfway house with the strategy. We risk throwing away 130 years of history and alienating our core supporters while cannibalising our existing competitions. If we get this wrong, it could mean the death of county cricket."

Intriguingly, Ratcliffe also suggested it was the ECB's intention to introduce an eight-team competition at the start of the T20 review process.

"One of the things that has become clear to me is that there was an agenda right from the start of this process, back in 2015, to introduce an eight-team competition," he said.

"In the first CIRG [County and International Review Group] meeting, several of us asked if this was the plan. We were assured it was not but, after several days of strategy and modelling it became clear that it was.

"The projected value of broadcast figures came out as early as July 2015 and non-disclosure agreements were put in place last year to prevent information leaking out. Looking back, I believe there was an agenda from the start."

'I'm concerned that, if the ECB's strategy fails, the game in this country could shrink, not grow'

While Ratcliffe hopes his comments will be viewed "in the constructive manner they are intended," his concern is the counties are close to committing to the new-team competition before many key questions have been answered. "I read the ECB chief executive Tom Harrison's recent interview," Ratcliffe said. "And while he clearly makes an exciting, compelling case, there was one phrase that stuck in my mind. He talked about "a moment where there's a leap of faith" and suggested we are 'very close to that.' It feels like a high stakes gamble.

"There are so many unanswered questions: how much influence does free to air broadcasting have? Who will host the matches? Will fans embrace new identities and travel to the matches? What will happen to Test cricket if the new-team T20 competition is being run at the same time and marketed so aggressively? How will county memberships, sponsorships and existing competitions be affected? Where is the compelling research to show that the new competition is desirable? How can our 50-over cricket develop if our best white-ball players are all involved in the new T20 tournament?

"My concern is that Welsh Rugby Union went down a similar route in 2003 and it's taken a generation to find out that attendances haven't improved.

"I'm not against change. I think we probably should have modelled a T20 competition with promotion and relegation and our existing 18 sides. But I'm concerned that, if the ECB's strategy fails, the game in this country could shrink, not grow, as a result of the new competition.

"There's a potential game-changing vote about to take place over the future of domestic cricket and there's been almost no open discussion. It's happening before existing supporters have come to understand the full ramifications.

"The only guaranteed winners in the short term, will be players with more money coming in at every level. County futures, however, are potentially far less uncertain.

"There's no doubt that cricket is resilient - 130 years of history has proved this. But while change is inevitable, we can't take anything for granted. If the plans progress next week, county cricket as we know it, will change forever and we'll be left with our fingers crossed that ECB have got this right."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo.