Tom Hartley’s international debut at the summer’s fag-end came as rather unexpected. The spinner had been a late call-up to England’s squad for the ODI series against Ireland, then an even later one to the playing XI for the third match when seamer Luke Wood went down ill with tonsillitis.
“Motty [head coach Matthew Mott] called me at 8:30am,” he said. “I was walking to breakfast and his number came up - I had to take a double-glance because I thought it was a bit weird. He was like: ‘You’re playing today’. I just thought: ’S***’.
“The team was named the day before and my family had been quizzing me about whether they should come down but I told them not to bother because I wasn’t going to play. I just texted them that morning with an ‘oops’.”
Hartley’s girlfriend, Lauren, did manage to make the dash to Nottingham, but had still been asleep when her partner sent through the good news. By the time she replied, his phone had already been handed in per anti-corruption rules and she was left to pay her own way into Trent Bridge as a punter.
Thankfully, there is less uncertainty about where Hartley’s next cap will come, the 24-year-old last week named in England’s ODI squad for next month’s series in the West Indies, where the 50-over side’s regeneration in the aftermath of a Cricket World Cup disaster will begin. Beyond that, though, there are already whispers of a potential place on the Test tour to India in the New Year, hardly quieted by performance director Mo Bobat last week, when he confirmed that Hartley “possesses some attributes we think could be quite effective out there”.
In their last crack at Test cricket’s most daunting assignment in early 2021, England claimed a superb opening win in Chennai but were then bamboozled by the likes of Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin on turning tracks. A tall left-armer who spears the ball into the pitch at pace, similarities between Hartley and Axar, in particular, have not gone unnoticed, not least by the man himself.
“Hearing this kind of stuff has made me think about [a Test call-up] it but I try not to look too far ahead,” he said. “I watched quite a lot of that series when it was going on and, attributes-wise, I’m not that far off what they do but obviously bowling in England is a lot different so I don’t really get to practice those skills.”
With County Championship cricket squeezed to the margins of the English summer, when conditions tend to favour seam, young spinners can do well to get a game, never mind impact one, which is part of the reason why England are increasingly looking beyond the numbers when it comes to investing in talent. Hartley, for instance, took only 19 red-ball wickets in 10 games at almost 45 for Lancashire this summer, but is part of a 20-man Lions squad laden with spinners that flies to the UAE for a training camp later this week.
“The wickets in Abu Dhabi will be hopefully similar to Indian wickets,” he added. “That would allow us to practice that kind of stuff because these guys like Axar and [Ravi] Jadeja have been doing it for years, while in England we bowl more traditional, over the top sort of spin. We look not to go for runs and wait for the batsmen to make the mistake. In India, the spinner can be on top, firing it in.”
Hartley is of athletic stock, quite literally: his father, Bill, won 4x400metre relay medals for Great Britain at both the European Championships and Commonwealth Games during the 1970s. He was never pushed towards the track, though, instead starting out with football until a change of school brought an introduction to cricket and the subsequent realisation that he was rather better with bat than boot. Even then, though, he classes himself as something of a late-bloomer, the height - and therefore high-release - that has piqued England’s interest not always such a boon.
"I was always a tall kid, but I was probably 5ft 8in,” he said. “Then you go through a year, and all of a sudden you've shot up to six-foot-two, six-foot-three, six-foot-four.
“I had these really long limbs but nothing to control them with, so I probably went through a period where technically I had good coaches but I couldn't land two balls in the same spot, just because I couldn't control everything.”
He credits his development since to a few teenage stints in Australia and then the guidance of Lancashire’s Carl Crowe, one of the few assistant coaches with a specialist spin background on the county circuit, who has made Hartley something of a personal project. Now England have taken it on with India, perhaps, calling.