One day in the early 1980s some lads were playing cricket on the old Lucas Sports Ground in Shirley, a rough old game knocking a tennis ball around, when Alan Townsend passed by, walking his dog.
Townsend, a fine batsman and brilliant slip-fielder for Warwickshire from 1948 to 1960, was now a coach at the club – and had spotted something.
“Apparently he went back to Edgbaston and said ‘young Jason looks good,” recounts Jason Ratcliffe.
‘Young Jason’ was soon in the Warwickshire system – and a playing career spanning 15 years at two great counties, which would lead to an equally fulfilling second career with the Professional Cricketers Association, was launched, by a diligent dog-walker.
Growing up I was a Warwickshire fan and when they won the John Player League in 1980 I was there with the family every Sunday. We’d sit in the top of the Ladies Stand and I’d score the games.Jason Ratcliffe
“I was always playing cricket as a kid,” says Ratcliffe. “Dad played for Warwickshire and I grew up playing cricket at home, in Prospect Lane and at the old Lucas ground. “After Towny spotted me I went to winter nets at 13 and into the age groups from there. Towny was a lovely guy – a warm bloke who just wanted to help you. At that time the coaches were Neil Abberley, Steve Rouse and Towny, all slightly different in style, but complimentary, which was good for us growing up and developing our games.”
An opening batsman, Ratcliffe signed as a professional for Warwickshire in 1987 and made his debut in the championship against Sussex at Hove in 1988. For the Solihull-born Bears fan, it was the stuff of dreams – sort of…
“I was called up late and got to the hotel and my room was like the broom cupboard,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘bloody hell, the glamour of professional cricket!’
“But it was a dream come true. Growing up I was a Warwickshire fan and when they won the John Player League in 1980 I was there with the family every Sunday. We’d sit in the top of the Ladies Stand and I’d score the games. I also remember scoring when Dennis Amiss got a hundred at Moreton-in-Marsh. I was passionate about it.”
The next generation was soon scoring Ratcliffe’s innings, notably, in 1993, when he was unlucky to finish on 999 first-class runs when run out backing up in his last innings of the season at Trent Bridge. He was also key to that season’s Nat West Trophy triumph. Everybody recalls the sensational win in the final against Sussex, when the Bears chased down 321 at Lord’s, but they wouldn’t have been there at all without Ratcliffe’s man-of-the-match century against Yorkshire in the quarter-final at Headingley.
“The 1980s weren’t great for Warwickshire but things improved significantly in the ’90s,” Ratcliffe said “1991, under Andy Lloyd’s captaincy, was an amazing year. We led the championship all the way but then in the last game it was us or Essex. We were at Taunton needing to beat Somerset and Essex were playing Middlesex and we were batting and, after an hour, Andy Moles and I were something like 50 for no wicket.
Then it came over the P.A. that Middlesex were 52 for eight. We looked at each other and said ‘well, that’s that then!’
“But we had some great times that year. My mate and ‘roomy’, Dominic Ostler didn’t drink so Lloydy would often use Ossie (known as ‘Parker’) as his driver and I’d be in the back. We beat Leicester at Grace Road and Bon Jovi came on the radio singing “we’re half way there.” We were half way through the season, top of the Championship table, and Lloydy turned the music up, opened the sunroof and was out the top of the car singing as we drove out of Leicester.”
Lloyd had sown the seeds of stunning successes to follow. Yet as Warwickshire set about dominating the mid-90s, for Ratcliffe it was bitter-sweet. He played just two championship games in the 1994 treble season. In 1995 he played eight – for Surrey.
“I had some wonderful times at Warwickshire,” he said. “Winning the NatWest Trophy in ’93 was something I’ll never forget. Chasing 321 was huge in those days, but it was an amazing wicket and a beautiful day and, although I didn’t get many, after I was out I went back in and said ‘look if this could ever be done, we’ll do it today on that wicket.’
“They were great days for Warwickshire. Bob Woolmer and Dermot Reeve turned the place round. They complemented each other and they had such energy. I also owe Woolly a lot because he introduced me to Andrea who I am still with now. We went to Stocks Health Club and Andrea was working for a PR agency and we got chatting but I didn’t ask for her number. On the way back in the car Woolly made a call and when we got to Edgbaston he handed me the phone and told me to get on with it. The biggest impact of my life!”
On the field, meanwhile, early in 1994, Ratcliffe had been squeezed out of Warwickshire’s top order by Brian Lara, Roger Twose and Dominic Ostler.
“I thought I’d play in 1994 because they’d originally signed Manoj Prabhakar and I thought he would bat lower down. Even when he didn’t make it and Lara signed I thought I would open with Brian at three. But then in pre-season a lot of the batters went up to Old Trafford for the first second-team game of the season. I got 90-odd and 50-odd and thought I’d booked my place but hadn’t and that was the beginning of the end.
“All of my career I’d been on a rolling two-year contract and after 1993 my contract was left to run down into its final year. I soon made up my mind during the 94 season that I should make a change. It’s tough when you’re not involved.
“I was disappointed because Warwickshire was my club and Birmingham was, and still is, my home town and Birmingham City is my club. I never envisaged leaving, but in professional sport this is what can happen.”
Ratcliffe started browsing for pastures new – and it was the historic expanse of The Oval which became his new office.
I also owe Woolly a lot because he introduced me to Andrea who I am still with now. We went to Stocks Health Club and Andrea was working for a PR agency and we got chatting but I didn’t ask for her number. On the way back in the car Woolly made a call and when we got to Edgbaston he handed me the phone and told me to get on with it.Jason Ratcliffe
“I fielded 12th man for England in a game at Edgbaston (in those days you didn’t have to be the most athletic fielder!),” he recalled, “and Alec Stewart took me under his wing. He knew I was intent on pastures new, so during the game he said ‘do you want to come and play for us?’
“Everyone wants to be wanted and I clearly wasn’t at the forefront of Warwickshire’s plans. I wasn’t a great fan of London, or of Surrey either, to be honest. There’s something about Surrey. They are perceived as a bit arrogant so part of me thought ‘what was I doing?’
“But there’s something magical about The Oval that makes you feel a little bit taller. The pavilion and ground is amazing with all that tradition and all that’s gone on there like FA Cup finals and the photos of the war days with prisoners of war. I’m not sure there is another club with that tradition and depth of history.
“The move was the best thing that could have happened for me. I was at Surrey for eight years and really enjoyed it. I played more cricket, became a decent white-ball cricketer, was part of lots of success year on year, met a lot of new people and became the Professional Cricketers’ Association rep which set me on the path on a whole new rewarding career.”
And that new career would eclipse what Ratcliffe achieved on the field. He became a pioneer fighting for the interests and welfare of current and former professional cricketers – as explored in Part Two next week.