All five of his appearances in the format have come in 2023 – and none of them for his county, Lancashire. The first three were on an England Lions tour of Sri Lanka in January, before an international debut at Trent Bridge at the end of the summer as part of a band of alternates to face Ireland.
The culmination of Hartley’s first year of 50-over cricket will come in the West Indies, as part of an England ODI squad looking to move on from a disastrous defence of their 2019 title in India. A tour previously regarded as an afterthought is now being framed as the scene for an overdue refresh, with just six players from the 2023 World Cup squad making the trip across the Atlantic. Almost by coincidence, Hartley has found himself in the right place at the right time.
That is not to say the 6ft 4in left-arm spinner has not been preparing for shock England duty off the back of minimal experience. The Test squad head to India at the start of the year, with spin options limited following Moeen Ali’s post-Ashes retirement. Despite just one five-wicket haul in 20 first-class matches, Hartley is openly considered a bolter for that five-match series.
Having emerged as the No. 1 spinner at Emirates Old Trafford this season, ousting legspinner Matt Parkinson – out of the team, and subsequently out of the club – he featured in 10 County Championship matches. Though he only managed 19 dismissals at an average of 44.84, ECB performance director Mo Bobat was one of many who took note of his developing “attributes”, which he saw close-up the previous winter in Sri Lanka.
That relationship is set to continue later this week when Hartley travels to the UAE as part of a 20-strong Lions group for a three-week training camp which is as much a fine-tuning exercise as far as red-ball spin is concerned as it is a fact-finding mission for India in the new year. Particularly with Test head coach Brendon McCullum coming out to survey the options at his disposal.
Nothing sums up the surprising nature of Hartley’s rise more than his debut. He was not part of the XI for the 2nd ODI with Ireland, which was announced the day before, and discouraged those close to him from making the trip to Trent Bridge. “I was like ‘no no, don’t bother, I’m not going to play. It would be a long day otherwise’.”
On his way down to breakfast on the morning of the game, he received a call from white-ball coach Matthew Mott to say he was now playing after Luke Wood was struck down with tonsilitis. “I was like – ‘shit!’.” He sent a follow-up message to those family and friends who were enquiring about attending: “Oooops.”
His girlfriend, Lauren, ended up coming down, though by the time she arrived, Hartley had already parted with his phone as per ICC anti-corruption rules, meaning she had to get her own ticket. The pair met afterwards for a celebratory dinner, with Hartley buying her a present by way of reimbursing her for missing out on a freebie.
The talismanic allrounder was with the squad in an unpaid capacity, and his speech to Hartley was his first public words since a serious car crash while filming an episode of Top Gear last December. It was an emotional address, in which Flintoff informed Hartley the cap “will change your life forever”, delivered with remarkable poise given the short turnaround.
“I wasn’t quite old enough watching cricket when the 2005 Ashes was on but watching the re-runs you really got a feel for the player he was. He’s just been so fantastic in being a real role model for players like myself and a lot of the boys at Lancashire.”
Hartley does not shy away from the prospect of a Test debut in India, or the importance of using his time wisely in the UAE, given it will now be cut short by having to travel to the Caribbean ahead of England’s first ODI in Antigua on December 3. Since hearing he might be in the mix, he has let his mind wander, particularly back to the 2021 series in which the spinners ran riot – notably fellow rangy left-armer Axar Patel, who finished with 27 wickets at 10.59 in just three matches through attacking the stumps with the new ball, something England are keen to get their up-and-coming twirlers practicing in the UAE.
“Hearing this sort of stuff, it’s made me think,” Hartley said. “But I try not to look too far ahead. Just trying to adapt myself to bowling like them bowlers.
“I watched quite a lot of that  series when it was going on and thinking, ‘well, attributes-wise I’m not too far off’. Obviously bowling in England is a lot different so I don’t really get to practice them skills. That’s why I’m grateful of this opportunity here now. Hopefully, the wickets in Abu Dhabi will be similar to Indian wickets, and we can start practising that sort of stuff.
“Obviously, these guys like Axar and [Ravindra] Jadeja and people like that have been doing it for years, whereas in England, it’s more traditional sort of over the top, don’t go anywhere, wait for the mistake from the batsmen rather than the spinner being the one on top firing it in and firing it in. It will be nice to work on that, and hopefully, it’ll come pretty easy.”
The majority of Hartley’s competitive cricket has been in the shortest formats, his 82 T20 appearances coming as a regular for Lancashire and Manchester Originals. Playing in front of big crowds and bowling with the new ball, including the first ball of the men’s Hundred, are examples he cites of pressure situations taken in his long stride. What grey areas on his CV are being covered by a studious disposition to a sport he only came to aged nine or 10.
When he is not picking the brains of Lancashire’s spin coach Carl Crowe, he is consuming as much as possible. His inspirations growing up were Daniel Vettori and Graeme Swann, who is reprising last winter’s role as a spin consultant with the Lions. He paid close attention to Australia’s tour of India earlier this year, particularly debutant Todd Murphy. This World Cup, he has been taking mental notes on Jadeja, Mitchell Santner and legspinner Adam Zampa.
Much of the World Cup viewing has been with his father, Bill Hartley, a former track athlete who won gold in the 1974 European Championships and silver in that year’s Commonwealth Games, both in the 4x400m relay. Despite the strong lineage, athletics did not call to Tom.
“I used to be quite chubby. I didn’t hit puberty until till late, so I was never the sports star. But obviously with my dad’s background, he always put me in a good place from a technical point of you and he was quite happy for me to go away from his sport.
“Him having a career in it, I think he liked for me to experience other things, so he always pushed me into football, cricket, a bit of rugby, that sort of stuff. That was fine by him. Eventually when I realised I should up my running, I came to him and asked ‘can we do a few sessions?'”
Bill’s interest in cricket grew with Tom’s aptitude. Occasionally, it would spill over into frustration – “my dad would kill me a few times for some of the shots I played”. Otherwise, room has been afforded to allow Tom to do his own thing.
If there is one key lesson Hartley has learned, it is to be more protective of his memorabilia. Bill, it turns out, has lost a few prized possessions.
“There was a big box that we were going through, and he was like: ‘We’re just going to have to chuck them out eventually.’ He won gold at the Commonwealths – not in the box, so no idea where it is.”
Given the rate at which Hartley is progressing, it might be worth starting his own box.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo