During the Ashes whitewash of 2013-14, Jamie Porter was a 20-year-old recruitment consultant in London who believed his cricket career was all but over. He had been on the books of Middlesex and his native Essex, spent three years with the MCC Young Cricketers, and time at the Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy in Adelaide and in the Australian grades. But there he was, unwanted, working at a medical recruitment specialist in Enfield.
"I felt a bit unlucky," he says. "I felt I'd been messed around a bit in cricket. I really enjoyed the job, but I always wanted to be a cricketer and would take any avenue possible to get there. I never quite gave up." Four years on, England were off to Australia again, and this time Porter's only visit to his London office was to see old colleagues and his sister Nicole, who still works there. After a season in which his 75 wickets helped Essex romp to their first Championship title in 25 years, he was being mentioned as a potential Ashes tourist. He was named Championship Player of the Year by the Cricket Writers' Club (even in the summer of Sangakkara), and Young Player of the Year by the PCA. Then came a stress fracture to his back, ruling him out of his first tour with England Lions, and ending any Ashes dreams.
"I was brought back down to earth pretty quickly," he smiles. JAMES ALEXANDER PORTER was born in Leytonstone on May 25, 1993, the son of Steve, who also works in recruitment, and Debbie, a teaching assistant. From a young age, he was all about East London, West Ham and seam bowling. He played Essex age-group cricket until he was discarded at 15; mates at Middlesex asked if he wanted a trial. It worked, but not permanently, and he was once more on the outside, looking in. From that point, Porter's ascent was rapid. In 2014, he performed well for Chingford - where he played with his best friend and future county team-mate Dan Lawrence - and earned a place with Essex Seconds. He promptly quit recruitment, a decision he calls "a bit rogue", adding: "I'd have looked a right muppet if I'd asked for the job back at the end of the week." There was no need: he played three Championship games in September 2014, then took 115 first-class wickets across the next two seasons.
In 2017, everything changed. At the age of 23, he found himself Essex's key bowler: his mentors David Masters and Graham Napier had retired after the club achieved promotion. He was joined by South African off-spinner Simon Harmer, who raced him all season for Championship wickets (Porter won by three), as well as by the overseas pace of Neil Wagner and Mohammad Amir, and a revolving door of locally sourced seamers. But Porter was the fulcrum, and missed just one match, when he was called up by the Lions to face South Africa A - and took three wickets in each innings.
His success was built on a rubbery right wrist that extracted seam movement even on the flattest surfaces, and an unerring ability to locate a length that appeared drivable, but was not. He had spent a quiet off-season building his strength and working on bowling round the wicket, providing him with another option against Division One's glut of top-order left-handers.
"My job is to take wickets with the new ball," he says. "It's the best time to bowl. You won't see me bowl short with it - I feel like bouncers are a waste when the ball's new. Top of off, stand that seam up. I'm asking more questions that way. "I realised early on last summer there was pressure on me. We always had one raw bowler in the side, and I was both the strike threat and the guy who had to keep it tight. My role quickly became helping younger bowlers, just like Napes and Hoddy [Masters] did for me, which is weird at my age. But I relished it. And I received a great bit of advice from Graham Gooch. He said, when you're in form, train harder, play more. I did that."
Of Porter's 75 wickets, 27 came in the first ten overs of an innings (no one else took more than 13 in that period), and 56 were top-six batsmen (the next highest in Division One was 38). He believes that his own slightly convoluted path, and the similar stories of some of his team-mates - such as opening batsman Nick Browne, who fought his way up through the local league system - contributed to Essex's remarkable triumph. For most of the year, eight of the XI were home-grown, while captain Ryan ten Doeschate was in his 15th season with the county.
"We're all great mates, and we loved our success," he says. "I truly believe we have something no other club have. When we were celebrating after the last win over Yorkshire, it was the only time I've felt like a celebrity. I was about ten metres away from my family, and I couldn't get to them! Everyone wanted a photo. For a good hour I moved about five metres. Insane. Carnage. The best day of them all." Time outside cricket's bubble, he says, has made him hungrier. "I appreciate what I've got, but I also play with no fear, because if it does end I'm not scared of the real world. I know I can go out and work and be happy. That gives me a bit of an advantage over many of the guys I play against. I know what the real world is like."