Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ed Balls, the teenage cricket geek

They say that you should never meet your heroes, but it is also wise not to meet your bogeymen in case you find that you quite like them.

So it was when I interviewed Ed Balls in the Lord's pavilion yesterday and discovered that we were both teenage cricket geeks.

I should loathe Balls, the former right-hand man to Gordon Brown. He has a reputation as an arrogant bruiser and a bully and I imagine that there is little in politics on which we would agree.

Except that for a pleasant half an hour, he talked with passion and enthusiasm about boyhood days spent playing dice cricket and impersonating Derek Randall. Guess he has some redeeming features.

I went to interview Balls because he was keeping wicket for the Lords and Commons team against MCC, but the Shadow Chancellor was all over the papers for plots and intrigue yesterday morning so The Times also dispatched Roland Watson, our political editor and a decent cricketer himself, to ask about leaked memos.

We wrote up the interview for a piece in the Times today, but there was a fair bit that didn't get in about Ed Balls's schooldays that I think is worth sharing, if only because it reveals an obsessive and rather sad fascination for cricket and maths. This is the tale of the making of a Treasury wonk.

Like many slightly nerdy teenaged boys, the young Balls loved cricket but could not play it. He never bowled for his school team and batted at No 11, but when it came to playing “dice cricket” in his bedroom, Balls was a master.

“I developed my own version and played games between England and an All Star XI using a scorebook I bought from Trent Bridge,” the Shadow Chancellor said. “My system was quite sophisticated. You rolled dice to see what the weather was like and used grids that attempted to simulate different kinds of play, like if it was a batter's day or a spinner's day.”

He admits that playing the games was “quite a chore” as he rolled the dice over and over to replicate a Test match. What excited him was what happened after the match.

“I would get to the end and recalculate by hand all the averages for the players,” he said. “I would write them out in order and then repick the teams and start again.

“The thing I really loved was doing the averages. I would get through the game as quickly as I could so that I could do them. The only thing is that England tended to do well so I think the dice may not have been rolled completely fairly.” He added that on family holidays he used to hope it would rain so he could stay indoors and play.

It brought back my own memories of playing "calculator cricket" in maths lessons, using the random number generator. Like Balls, I also drew up my own eventualities tables to reflect weather, pitch and momentum in the series. God, I was quite a sad little character.

The first Test match that Balls saw was the great West Indies side in 1976 at Trent Bridge. His hero was Randall, the madcap England batsman who was noted for his eccentric behaviour at the crease and his fielding acrobatics.

“We wanted to be like him at school,” Balls said. “We spent ages practising running, picking up the ball and throwing it at the wicket. We were the most exhibitionist team around and when we batted we would stand at the crease continually fiddling.”

Alas, we had little chance to watch the Balls fiddling yesterday. Only 11 overs were possible in the match, the first time the annual game had been played at Lord's since 1939.

Having been driven off once by a heavy downpour after 40 minutes, they emerged tentatively after lunch but rain started falling as soon as the covers were removed. The match was abandoned at 4pm; the gods had seen enough of Balls's wicketkeeping.

It was just long enough, though, for Danny Alexander, a left-arm medium-pace Cabinet minister who shared the new ball with Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington, to trap one of the MCC opening batsmen leg before wicket.

The Shadow Chancellor was the first man to shake hands with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, all rivalries forgotten in the name of sport. "He told me 'God this is probaly the only time you'll ever be able to congratulate me for something'," Balls recalled as rain teemed down outside. "I said I was slightly worried that it was going too far down the leg side to be given out."

Alexander was lucky that the batsman hadn't edged the ball behind for Balls to catch given his rather feeble efforts at taking the ball in his gloves. "More goalkeeper than wicketkeeper" was his own honest assessment. "I'm just relieved I didn't drop any catches," he added.

Instead of sledging the opposition, Balls and his slip cordon, the Tory MPs Crispin Blunt and Matthew Hancock, made cracks at their team-mate, John Redwood. It is probably the only time Balls and Redwood have found themselves on the same side.

"In 1997, I played for the journalists against the MPs team and hit three fours off Redwood in an over," Balls recalled. "That's the highlight of my cricketing career. I got 25 or so that day. John and I have always got on fine."

The 11-year-old Balls went along eagerly to nets at his secondary school, hoping to impress the master in charge. Afterwards, they gathered round and the teacher told them that one boy had stood out above the rest.

"For a fleeting second I thought it could be me," Balls said. Instead, it was James Morris, the man who captained him yesterday and whose day job is as Tory MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis. Balls was the token Labour MP in the team.

Balls admits that it was a dream to get changed in the away dressing room where Sri Lanka had prepared for last week's Test match and the name of their captain, Tillekeratne Dilshan, had been freshly painted on the honours board after his century. "We all looked at the honours board in disbelief," Balls said. "Cricket always has more reverence for history than other sports.

"When I watched TV as a boy, they would show classic moments on TV during the rain. To be in the place where it all happened, the sense of history and majesty about it, is different to anywhere else." Except, some may argue, the Houses of Parliament. It is easy to be blase about a place that you visit every day.

[pics by the estimable Graham Morris]

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