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Feature

Frequent flyer Jordan Cox ready to seize his chance with Essex

Chelmsford new boy talks about his busy winter, learning from the best and adding a "fourth string" to his bow

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
02-Apr-2024
Jordan Cox playing for Melbourne Renegades in the Big Bash League  •  Getty Images

Jordan Cox playing for Melbourne Renegades in the Big Bash League  •  Getty Images

What does it take to build a career in professional cricket's modern, itinerant era? In this fragmenting landscape, the days of biding one's time and awaiting that international call are receding, and in their place a new generation of go-getter cricketer is emerging, with a restless curiosity and an increasingly clear understanding of how to cash in on their athletic prime.
Players such as Jordan Cox, for instance, a 23-year-old whose seemingly inevitable England debut remains, for now, just beyond his reach, but who isn't about to let that circumstantial setback restrict his career progression.
Midway through last summer, Cox secured a high-profile and not-uncontroversial move from Kent to Essex, a club he describes as being "best suited for what I want at this moment in time", which hardly smacks of the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
And little wonder, given the winter he's just had. With apologies to his new county, and with no sense whatsoever that he'll be stinting on his efforts as Essex's season begins, next week's County Championship opener against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge will be Cox's fifth professional debut of the past five months.
His string of new beginnings began back in November, when Cox stepped out for Bangla Tigers in the Abu Dhabi T10, where his six matches produced 265 runs, two half-centuries and a strike-rate of 232, including a ferocious 90 not out from 36 balls against the eventual finalists, Deccan Gladiators.
By the time that final took place, however, Cox had already swapped continents for what became a four-match stint with Melbourne Renegades in Australia's Big Bash League, which then gave way to a return to the UAE in January to play for Gulf Giants in the ILT20.
And, having previously sampled the SA20 and the Lanka Premier League in the 2022-23 winter, Cox then capped this year's travels by making his first appearances in the Pakistan Super League, with six matches for Islamabad United in February and March prior to his link-up with his newest new squad for Essex's pre-season in Abu Dhabi.
"I left on November 10, and I was back 10 days ago, so I've been aware a fair chunk," Cox says during Essex's pre-season media day in Chelmsford. "I love it. I went to private school, I was a boarder. So my parents were like, 'have fun at school, see you at Easter holidays, see you at Christmas'. So I'd only go home like three times a year, so I'm pretty used to being away from home."
That sense of adventure is palpable as Cox lifts the curtain on the touring lifestyle to reveal a glimpse of what this new world is really like. The SA20, he says, is "carnage … the flights are full on … fly, rest day, game, everywhere." The ILT20, by contrast, was just 40-minute bus rides between Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. "It was the first time I've ever unpacked in a franchise environment."
As for the PSL, on one extended break between matches, Cox and his Islamabad team-mate Alex Hales took a leaf out of England's book from their recent tour of India, and decamped to Abu Dhabi for "99 holes of golf". "People think that's crazy," he says. "But for us, that's actually paradise."
Hales is just one of a host of world-class contemporaries with whom Cox has been rubbing shoulders all winter long, be it team-mates at his various franchises, such as David Miller, Aaron Finch and Shimron Hetmyer or opponents such as Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell and Faf du Plessis from whom he's eager to soak up as much knowledge as possible.
"It's a lot better than sitting in the indoor school practising skills," Cox says. "Watching Andre Russell hitting a cricket ball is fascinating. I was keeping in one of the practice T10 games, and he hit this monster six. And I was like, 'cor, that's a big hit', and he was like, 'I didn't even catch that'.
"It's so interesting watching Faf too, he has a different technique, but he still scores runs. Even if you're not playing, you learn to learn off the people that have done it for years. If you train hard, you realise that you don't have to be like someone else, you be yourself and you'll naturally score runs."
Quite apart from his ball-striking abilities, however, Cox is making quite the name for himself as an explosive boundary-riding fielder. This was perhaps best epitomised in the T20 Blast final at Edgbaston in 2021, when he stretched over the rope at midwicket to palm back a crucial relay catch off Somerset's Lewis Gregory, as Kent surged to their first silverware for 12 years.
Since then, he's become quite the fixture in the outfield for his various franchises, becoming something of a cult figure during his PSL stint in particular.
"I think once you do those catches over the ropes, you learn different things like where you think your stride is going to be," he says. "You work on it, so that when you see the ball come in, you look at the boundary rope and know roughly [where it is].
"I've always been lucky in the fielding sense, I seem to read the play pretty well. When batters are trying to run two, you know roughly where the ball's going to be, so I'm looking at them before the ball comes, and then I zone back in on the ball. It's about not being lazy, and making sure that every single ball that comes to you, you're going to make an impact."
Quite apart from his desire to be as involved in the action as possible, there's a quiet pragmatism at play in Cox's attempts to make himself more valuable to the teams that are bidding for his services, not least because, at Kent, his wicketkeeping opportunities were restricted by the presence of both Sam Billings and Ollie Robinson.
"I think my batting gets in most [franchises] because I can bat one to six in T20 cricket," he says. "The only problem with that is, if you don't do as well, you're the first one to get dropped because you're not an allrounder, you're just a batter. So there's definitely downsides to it. But to have strings to your bow should definitely help you.
"It's quite handy for owners if you're able to keep and field. They don't go, 'he's a liability', instead it's 'let's get him in because he's got those three strings'. I do work pretty hard at my fielding, probably harder than I do with my keeping. Because I know that, in T20 cricket, I can change the game. When you come to the ground I'll be the last person out catching balls, trying different things, being stupid in a way. But no, that's definitely not luck."
"If I'm learning to bowl, that's four strings to my bow. Why wouldn't a team want me? It's tough because I'll have to show people I'm good enough to bowl but hopefully, one day, I'll be able to hold an end in T20 cricket"
But why stop at three strings? Cox is already working on a fourth, "farting about" as he puts it with Azhar Mahmood, his bowling coach at Islamabad and with Oval Invincibles in the Hundred, to develop a range of cutters, spinners and carrom balls that could one way offer another cutting edge to his game.
"Why can't I be like Glenn Phillips?" Cox says, recalling how New Zealand's unlikely allrounder went from keeping wicket in the early months of his international career to playing a pivotal role with the ball across formats. "Everyone thought three years ago, 'what is this?' Now he's got a Test five-for!
"I'm giving it the Liam Livingstone-style, off-spin to left-handers, leg-spin to righties, and I'm trying this new carrom ball which is tough … in Pakistan, [Azhar said to get] a tennis ball, I was flicking it against the wall, and in one of the games, you'd have seen me bowling 20 sets from one end.
"But why not? If I'm learning to bowl now and practising these stupid little balls, that's four strings to my bow," he adds. "Why wouldn't a team want me? It's tough because I'll have to show people I'm good enough to bowl but hopefully, one day, I'll be able to hold an end in T20 cricket."
It was also in Pakistan two winters ago that Cox had his first taste of the international lifestyle, as an unused squad member during England's T20I tour. Since then, he suffered an untimely finger injury that arguably denied him a home debut against New Zealand last summer, but his hunger to get the recognition he feels he deserves is undeniable.
"I've thought about [Pakistan] plenty of times. I was picked for England when I was 20. I'm 23 now, I still haven't played for England, what am I doing wrong? But actually if you think about it, my finger put me out for 14 weeks - though for a finger I'd rather just chop it off and carry on, you know? But I can't see why I won't get any more [chances].
"But seriously, add those strings to your bow. It's good for franchise cricket, it's good for Test cricket. If they need an allrounder, and then potentially a back-up keeper. It's like okay, well, I can do that."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket