Tunnicliffe was born at Low Town, Pudsey, Yorkshire, England. He was a tall, forceful right-handed opening batsman, and on his figures one of the best slip fielders of all time. A late starter in first-class cricket, he was a regular in the Yorkshire team from 1893 and, between 1895 and 1907, scored 1,000 runs in every season except 1903. His best year was 1898, when he scored 1,804 runs at an average of 41.00 runs per innings. That season he made his highest score, contributing 243 in a then-record partnership for any wicket of 554 with Jack Brown against Derbyshire at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield. That stand is still the third highest for the first wicket, and the sixth highest for any wicket, in first-class cricket worldwide. Tunnicliffe was named as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1901.
Almost as important to Yorkshire as his batting was Tunnicliffe’s slip fielding. Nicknamed “Long John of Pudsey”, he had long arms that enabled him to bring off catches others would not have attempted. In 498 first-class matches, he took 695 catches. In a few of his early games in 1891 and 1892, he appeared to have acted as wicket-keeper, but thereafter he was at slip. His 70 catches in the 1901 season was a record that stood until Wally Hammond caught 79 in 1928. His ratio of catches to matches is 1.393:1, which compares favourably with both Hammond (1.291:1) and John Langridge (1.365:1).
Tunnicliffe scored 20,310 first-class runs at an average of 27.00, and with his occasional bowling took seven wickets at 57.85.