On 28th April 2011, Ed Balls, then recently appointed as the UK’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, accidentally tweeted his own name — and the internet has celebrated it as Ed Balls Day ever since. Michael Jones looks at the cricketing connections of the former Cabinet minister.
Most new technology, it seems, comes with an array of buttons, and it is easy enough to press the wrong one. In previous decades, the new owner of a VCR or microwave might have done so, with unexpected and possibly undesirable consequences; in the 2010s the unwitting user of a tablet or smartphone may do likewise. The key difference is that if one jammed the VCR or made smoke come out of the microwave, only those people in the same house would know about it; press the wrong button on a device connected to the internet, and the whole world gets to see.
That was the fate which befell Ed Balls. On 28th April 2011, one of his staff advised him to read an article about him which was being circulated on Twitter, so — in the middle of doing his shopping at the time — he logged into the site, typed his own name… and pressed the wrong button. Instead of searching for his name he had tweeted it.
Had he deleted it immediately he might have limited the damage, but unfortunately for him he was unaware that it was possible to do so. Previous generations might not have seen any amusement value in someone announcing his own name in public, but the internet has given rise to a new brand of humour, and those seven letters quickly went viral.
There it might have ended, until a year later someone decided that it would be a marvellous idea to celebrate the anniversary of the tweet as “Ed Balls Day”. An old joke never dies, it seems, and the “celebrations” have spread and diversified with each subsequent year, from comments such as “I haven’t finished taking down my Ed Balls decorations after last year’s Ed Balls Day” to Ed Balls: The Movie posters. Brian Bilston, the ‘Bard of Twitter’, wrote a poem about it (“In the Beginning were the Words/And the Words were Ed Balls…”). Balls himself joined in the fun, baking an Ed Balls Day cake which, naturally, he posted a picture of on Twitter.
The original tweet has been reproduced on everything from t-shirts to cross-stitch. In 2015 the Labour Party was seeking items for an auctionto raise funds for that year’s General Election campaign; Balls’ contribution was a signed, framed copy of the tweet. It was never deleted, and in six years since it has been retweeted more than 80,000 times.
— Ed Balls (@edballs) April 28, 2011
Balls studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University — a well-worn route to a UK government position. After periods teaching at Harvard and writing for the Financial Times, Balls became economic adviser to Gordon Brown, firstly in opposition, then after Labour’s victory in the 1997 General Election, as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In 2004 Bill O’Brien, Labour MP for Normanton, announced his decision to retire at the following year’s election, and Balls was chosen as the candidate to replace him, winning the seat by a majority of 10,002. That constituency was abolished in subsequent boundary changes, and in 2010 he stood and won in Morley and Outwood.
His first ministerial position was as Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Then, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, Balls was promoted to Secretary for Children, Schools and Families (a position which has changed its name several times as areas of responsibility are shifted from one department to another).
His wife Yvette Cooper is also a Labour MP, and when Cooper was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, they became the first married couple to serve in the Cabinet simultaneously. He had a tangle with the courts after he ordered the dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith, Director of Children’s Social Services at Haringey Council, for the service’s failure to spot the signs of abuse which led to the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend; after the High Court had ruled in favour of the department, the Court of Appeal found that Shoesmith’s dismissal was unlawful, and ordered that she be paid compensation.
When Labour lost the 2010 General Election, Gordon Brown resigned as party leader and Balls entered the contest to replace him; he finished third, as Ed Miliband, to general surprise, beat his brother David to the leadership. Miliband appointed Balls as Shadow Home Secretary, and a year later he became Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer — the second most senior post in the party, leading to them being dubbed “the two Eds”.
Politics and cricket have a rich joint history: cricketers have gone into politics (Learie Constantine, Frank Worrell, Sam Loxton, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kirti Azad, Mohammad Azharuddin, Mohammad Kaif), politicians have played cricket (Alec Douglas-Home, Grantley Adams, Nawaz Sharif) or at least been ardent fans of the game (John Howard, John Major, Michael Manley).
In England the tradition has been encapsulated by the Lords and Commons team, whose history stretches back to the 1850s. Many noted politicians have represented the team over the years, and a number of First-Class cricketers: Lord Harris and Lionel Tennyson played for England; Michael Falcon, MP for East Norfolk from 1918-1923, was also an excellent fast-medium bowler who took eight wickets in the match to help Archie MacLaren’s England XI beat the 1921 Australians; Charles Fry, grandson of the more famous CB, was a useful player himself, with two First-Class centuries to his name. A few ‘ringers’ have also turned out for the Lords and Commons despite having no connection with Parliament, from James Southerton and Thomas Hearne in the early decades of the team to Mike Denness more recently.
Perhaps it is only natural that someone named Balls would be drawn to sport: nomenest omen, as one with a classical education might say. In 2011, a few weeks after his famous tweet, the Shadow Chancellor took to the field for the Lords and Commons against MCC — a match played, appropriately, at Lord’s. It may have provided some welcome distraction, coming just as documents had been leaked to the press which showed that six years earlier he had been involved in an alleged ‘plot’ to oust Tony Blair as Prime Minister — although his teammates ensured he couldn’t forget about the leak story for too long by placing the day’s newspaper headlines around the dressing-room. Balls claimed in an interview that talk of a ‘plot’ was an attempt to sensationalise the routine: there had been a plan for the transition from Blair’s term in office to Gordon Brown’s, but since the plan was known and had been agreed by all parties involved, including Blair, it could hardly be termed a plot.
On this occasion the team’s name was something of a misnomer, since there were no Lords playing: Balls’ teammates from the House of Commons included John Redwood, the former Secretary of State for Wales (who once made himself infamous by mouthing the Welsh national anthem because he didn’t know the words); Jo Johnson, later Minister for Universities and Science, and brother of Boris, the current Foreign Secretary; Hugh Robertson, then the Minister for Sport and now chairman of the British Olympic Association.
Almost all the players were Conservatives, with Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, ensuring the Liberal Democrats were represented, and Balls the only Labour player. James Morris, an erstwhile schoolmate of Balls, was the only member of the team with First-Class experience, having played three matches for Oxford University in 1991, and thus was appointed captain. MCC comprised mostly Minor County and Second XI players, although they also had two former international players in Clare Connor and captain Matthew Fleming.
Only 11 overs were possible before the match was abandoned due to rain, but that was plenty of time for Balls to see some action as the Lords and Commons keeper. Photos of the match suggest that he was not particularly good at it: one shows the ball going past him, with the agonised expression on his face suggesting it hit him somewhere painful on the way through; another had him sprawling on his back with the ball on the ground nearby. There is no photo of him actually holding the ball. Still, he didn’t concede any byes, and maintained that he didn’t drop a catch either, which presumably implies that the batsmen never edged the ball.
The only wicket to fall was that of Timothy Whittome, LBW to Alexander for a duck. The keeper was the first to join the bowler in celebrating the wicket, and Alexander, more used to being on the opposite side to Balls, commented “This is probably the only time you’ll ever be able to congratulate me for something.”
Patrick Kidd, who interviewed Balls for Times on the day of the match, regretted that the paper cut many of the Shadow Chancellor’s reminiscences about his schooldays as a cricket fan (oddly, the sub-editor seemed more interested in the leaked documents than in cricket) — so he published them on his own blog instead.
Most ardent cricket fans will, in their youth, have found some way of simulating a game when time, situation or lack of an opponent prevents a real one being played. Young fans of the 21st century have it easy, with a range of cricketing computer games enabling the simulation not only of games but of whole careers; in previous decades the only options available were book or dice cricket, and it was in devising his own version of the latter that the future Labour minister truly excelled.
As Balls told Kidd, “I developed my own version and played games between England and an All Star XI using a scorebook I bought from Trent Bridge. 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… I would get to the end and recalculate by hand all the averages for the players. 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.”
Balls may not have shown much skill at playing cricket — although in the days before joining Parliament himself, he played for a team of journalists against MPs and described hitting three fours in an over from his future team-mate John Redwood as “the highlight of my cricketing career” — but his dedication to the game’s statistics reached the highest level.
Born in Norwich but brought up in Nottingham, it was natural that Trent Bridge would provide his introduction to cricket, and this being the 1970s, equally natural that it would be Derek Randall who was his first hero: with his foibles and fidgeting at the crease, Randall was the obvious target for any schoolboy to attempt to imitate, and although copying him might have improved Nottingham High School’s fielding, it also made them, by Balls’ own admission, “the most exhibitionist team around”.
Aside from playing and following cricket himself, in his days as Schools Minister, Balls also did his best to spread the game — pointing out not only the physical benefits of playing, but its connections to technology, how its history reflects the histories of the countries in which it is played — and his own childhood favourite, statistics.
Balls also follows (and occasionally plays) another ball game: while his cricketing love is the county where he went to school, in football his allegiance remains to his birthplace, and after leaving Parliament he accepted an invitation to become chairman of Norwich City FC. As with cricket, his career on the field has not been a glorious one, and he is primarily remembered for a charity match between politicians and journalists in which a misjudged tackle left his opponent nursing an eye injury.
In the 2015 General Election, Balls lost his seat in Parliament to the Conservative challenger Andrea Jenkyns by a margin of just 422 votes (his wife, Yvette Cooper, retained her seat). Not only did the result leave the Lords and Commons team in need of a new wicketkeeper, it also left Balls looking for alternative ways to spend his time. He had no difficulty finding them: a month after the election he was appointed a Senior Fellow of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, then subsequently Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute of King’s College, London.
He was also interviewed by Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special, gaining new fans who hadn’t been aware of his passion for cricket. The following year he took part in The Great Sport Relief Bake Off, losing out to Kimberley Walsh, and published an autobiography, Speaking Out.
Then he followed in the footsteps of two fellow (but rather superior) cricketers — Mark Ramprakash and Darren Gough — in entering the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing. For those unfamiliar with the programme, the celebrity contestants are paired with professional dancers (in Balls’ case, Katya Jones), who have the task of teaching their partner throughout the series. On each programme they perform a different style of dance, with one pair eliminated each week until the winners are crowned.
Balls failed to follow the footsteps of Ramprakash and Gough all the way, though: both of them won their respective series. It should be noted here that the contestants to be eliminated from Strictly (as it is known for short) each week are determined by a combination of the judges’ and the viewers’ votes. The judges are professional dancers, and award marks according to the technical merit of the dances they watch; the viewers… who knows? The British public have always had an affinity for the underdog, who continues to try his best even though he (and everyone else) realises that even at his best he is not as good as his opponent: it’s why they continued to support Eddie the Eagle, Tim Henman and the national cricket team.
Balls was certainly not a great dancer, but there was no doubting his enthusiasm for the competition; the viewers took himto their hearts, and he soon added himself to the list of great British underdogs. Week after week the judges rated him and Jones the worst of the competing pairs — only twice in the whole series did they finish higher than last, and on both of those occasions it was only by one point — but week after week the viewers voted to keep them in the competition.
After watching the former MP’s version of Gangnam Style, Len Goodman told him “I don’t think there’s words [sic] in the dictionary to describe it, I’ve got to say I enjoy watching you for your entertainment value. OK, we’re the judges, but we also watch it as normal human beings, and it’s so entertaining.” He and Jones were eventually eliminated in week 10, finishing fifth; the series winners were the sports journalist Ore Oduba and his professional partner Joanne Clifton. He donned his dancing shoes once again for 2017’s Comic Relief, joining other celebrities to stage a parody of the opening scene of La La Land.
A General Election will be held in the UK next month, but Balls has ruled out an attempt to return to Parliament; no doubt the decision will leave more time for his extra-political pursuits — including, perhaps, a spot of wicketkeeping practice.