Tom Hartley: The England spinner who went from a garden centre to greener pastures

The unheralded 24-year-old enjoyed a Test debut to remember in Hyderabad

Ben Fleming
Tuesday 30 January 2024 09:49 GMT
(Getty Images)

Tom Hartley spun himself into the headlines on Test debut after the Lancastrian was the architect of a famous England win against India, becoming the first England spinner since Jim Laker in 1948 to take 7 wickets on debut.

The 24-year-old, who had only played 20 first-class matches before his inclusion in the England squad for the tour to India, has enjoyed a rapid rise to the summit of international cricket.

Having only made his professional debut in 2020, Hartley’s height and left-arm action had Rob Key and Ben Stokeshoping he could provide a point of difference to England’s attack in a similar way to India’s Axar Patel, who tormented England on their last visit to India back in 2021.

Hartley struggled in the first innings, seeing his first ball clubbed over the boundary ropes for six, but responded in fine style to produce the second-best figures by an England spinner on debut and help condemn India to only their fourth home Test defeat since 2013.

Tom Hartley delighted on debut for England (Getty Images)

The orthodox spinner’s display may come as a surprise to the neutral onlooker but, for those who have charted Hartley’s rise, this latest leap is no great shock.

The son of Bill Hartley, who won 4x400m gold at the 1974 European Championship gold, football was his initial love, part of an academy as a youngster but quickly discarded.

The 25-year-old also became the sixth generation of the family to work for Hartley’s Nurseries, a horticultural business in Merseyside founded in 1890. The family business was part of the developing cricketer’s childhood and he filled in for a week as recently as November, although his time selling flowers may well have come to an end.

At Merchant Taylor’s school, though, he soon began to hone his love for cricket. Regular matches at Ormskirk Cricket Club - 13 miles north of Liverpool - soon saw him catch the eye of Lancashire’s academy when he was an under-14.

Developing as a spin bowler in England’s seam-friendly conditions can often be a tricky task, with opportunities are scant and the burden of expectation heavy. Hartley had to bide his time for an opportunity in the first team but that eventually came in the Covid-interrupted 2020 season.

The spinner, who has also made himself a handy asset as a lower-order, free-swinging batsman, was a surprise debutant in the Bob Willis Trophy, playing four games but making an instant impact with his wicket-tacking ability and shrewd economy rate.

Injuries and international call-ups may have gifted him a fortunate debut, but there was nothing chanceful about his displays for the rest of the season. Hartley soon made himself undroppable in Lancashire’s white-ball side, becoming a key part of their three-pronged spin attack - alongside Liam Livingstone and Matt Parkinson - which led Lancashire to Finals Day that very year.

Hartley made his Lancashire debut in 2020 (Getty Images)

A whirlwind few months saw him crowned Lancashire’s young player of the year and catch the eye of Manchester Originals, who drafted the spinner into their squad for the inaugural season of The Hundred in 2021. England’s new franchise competition afforded Hartley another opportunity to shine and he took it, finishing his first season in the competition as the second-highest-wicket tacker for his side.

Back at Lancashire, Hartley continued to ply his trade on Old Trafford’s turning pitch and it would not be long until he started to catch the eye of national selectors. Very few spin bowlers carry with them a six-foot-four-inch frame like Hartley and in September 2023, England decided the time was right to take a closer look.

Hartley made his ODI debut for England against Ireland, his cap handed to him by fellow Lancastrian Freddie Flintoff in an emotional exchange. “When you get this cap, this changes your life. It’s one of those things - it’s before and after it,” the former England captain said. “So like the lion on the cap Tom, be brave, be fearless, be proud and enjoy every minute.”

And fearless is what Hartley has had to be. Just four months later, Hartley was thrown in at the deep end, selected for England’s Test tour of India. Almost all of the 24-year-old’s success has come in the shorter, white-ball formats but Hartley, emboldened by Ben Stokes’ and Brendon McCullum’s swashbuckling style, has risen to the occasion.

His first Test figures of 9-193 were the best for an Englishman on debut since John Lever in December 1976 and may have laid the foundations for one of England cricket’s most famous series wins.

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