Massie bowls opener John Edrich in England’s second innings

A flash of genius

When done well, swing bowling is arguably the most beautiful of cricket skills


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This summer sees the 50th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary debuts in cricket history. It was the second Test of the 1972 Ashes, and Bob Massie was limbering up to bowl for Australia. Three years before, he had been rejected by Northamptonshire while playing for Kilmarnock, not exactly a hotbed of willow and leather. Now he was about to tear England apart.

Sporting sideburns so huge they should have had their own postcode, and taking every advantage of the cloudy and cool conditions at Lord’s, Massie took 8 for 53 in the first innings and 8 for 84 in the second to give him a match return of 16 for 137. They were the third best figures of all time, but there was nothing fluky about the way he had done it.

Bob Massie and ’Burns

Massie was a swing bowler, and of all cricket’s skills swing bowling is arguably the most beautiful when done well. To watch a ball bend, swerve and deviate in flight is to wonder where physics ends and magic begins. Over the course of his few enchanted days at Lord’s Massie was a conjuror, not so much just delivering the ball as making it dance to his will, darting into or away from the batsman as he chose. Dennis Lillee, his partner as opening bowler, called it “as near perfection as I have ever seen”.

For his part, Massie seemed at times almost embarrassed. When his team mates let him lead them off the pitch at the end of the first innings, he walked with his head bowed and his jumper clutched in one hand, apparently oblivious to the standing ovation he was receiving from all four corners of the famous ground.

Their milestones turned out to be millstones

If a man could do this in his first Test, many thought, what on earth could he do with a bit of experience under his belt? Wisden, in contrast, counselled caution. “Cricket followers should keep Massie’s Lord’s performance in perspective and not expect too much too soon from him. It would be unwise, apart from applauding, to pay too much attention to his one sensational performance.”

Wise words from the almanac: and, as it turned out, prophetic ones too. His form dropped off so sharply that he only played five further Tests, ending up with 31 wickets: in other words, more than half his entire haul came in his first match. Within 18 months he had also been dropped by his state side, Western Australia, and he went back to his career with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Sixteen wickets on debut: well, it had been pure happenstance. It would never happen again. But it did. Sixteen years later, appropriately enough, a 19-year-old Indian spinner, Narendra Hirwani, repeated the feat against the West Indies in what was then Madras, almost measure for measure: his figures of 16 for 136 bettered Massie’s by just one run.

The similarities didn’t stop there. Hirwani ended up playing more Tests than Massie, but not by much: 17 matches for 66 wickets. Between them, they played fewer than 25 Tests and took fewer than 100 wickets. Their milestones turned out to be millstones.

Spinner Narendra Hirwani took 16 for 136 on his sensational debut

They were, and remain, the game’s ultimate one-hit wonders. The phrase almost always comes across as disparaging: the “wonder” feels more than a little sarcastic, shot through with the implication, almost the taunt, that the stars aligned in ways which were neither planned nor merited. Think of musical one-hit wonders — Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup You Face”, Chesney Hawkes’s “The One and Only”, Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” — and there is as often as not an accusation of lightweight froth, of flimsy structures built on sand and blown away the moment an ephemeral public whim moves on.

But that is both unfair and untrue. Those songs endure today, giving a warm jolt of recognition when heard decades after they were first released. So too, in an oblique way, with Massie and Hirwani. For a start, they were both very good cricketers: no-one gets to that level without being so. They were both smart and brave enough to use the perfect storm of conditions, pitch and match situations in their favour: to go after it, to make things happen. “Bowl without fear” said India’s captain Ravi Shastri, and Hirwani did just that, daring to take on the great Vivian Richards and dismiss him with a flipper.

Most of all, perhaps, their brief flourishings — Massie’s Match, the Magician of Madras — reflect a fundamental truth about not just sport but also life itself: that it is a series of moments. It is snapshots as well as motion film: it is drops of water as well as a river. Those bright shining flashes of intensity — a charged night with a lover, a party which ends long after dawn, the ecstasy of personal triumphs — stay with us when more quotidian events have faded into obscurity.

Massie and Hirwani both recognise this. “I felt that I’d got the best out of myself,” Massie said, “and I enjoyed every minute of it: the mateship, the good times. I’ve got nothing to complain about. There’s been far better cricketers than me that have never played for Australia, so I consider myself fortunate.” 

“I never complained,” Hirwani said about his decline. “In life, these things happen. If you keep moping, you won’t go forward. I didn’t feel any regret. A player either wins or learns. He never loses.”

One-hit wonders? No. Just wonders.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover