Consider this list of recent England batsmen: Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Jason Roy, Alex Hales, Joe Root and Ben Stokes.
Many things link them. All won at least one World Cup from 2019 to 2022; Buttler and Stokes won two. All are among England’s greatest-ever batters in at least one of the two international limited-overs formats. But there is something else, less obvious: the years of their birth. They were all born between 1989 and 1991.
So were James Vince, Sam Billings and James Taylor, who would probably have been England regulars in any other era. Vince and Billings have spent their careers on the fringes despite stellar domestic records. Taylor had to retire aged 26 because of a heart condition; he averaged 42.23 in his brief ODI career and 53.11 in all one-day cricket.
Eight members of this group – all bar Hales – were born between September 1989 and June 1991: the equivalent of two school years. Three significant bowlers in English white-ball cricket – Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and David Willey – were also born between 1989 and 1991, but it is the batting talent that is altogether more notable.
These players amount to English white-ball batting’s golden generation: an extraordinary abundance of talent to emerge across three years. They emerged just as a cohort of England footballers given that moniker neared the ends of their unfulfilled international careers but were rarely described in the same way. Through a combination of luck and judgement, they benefited from a system that enabled them to explore the outer depths of their talents.
Besides growing up with T20, and learning from each other from their teens, another striking feature of the 1989–1991 cohort was where they went to school. Seven of the nine batters – all bar Hales and Stokes, who emigrated from New Zealand aged 12 – attended private schools at some stage, though Root only from the age of 15. Root was among those who received either partial or full sports scholarships – which were becoming more common, as leading schools increasingly saw sport as a source of prestige and publicity alike.
‘This cohort stood out for their physical dynamism’
The cohort were outstanding multi-sport athletes, taking advantage of the range of opportunities their schools offered. Buttler was Somerset’s under-13 tennis champion aged nine; Vince played football in Reading’s academy; Billings skipped a Tottenham Hotspur trial to go on a cricket tour to Barbados; Roy was a promising rugby back who, aged 17, was offered academy deals with Wasps and Harlequins.
When Bairstow played rugby, ‘I was at fly-half, in hockey I played middle of midfield,’ he wrote for Telegraph Sport. ‘Positions from which you can influence the game and try to put your side in a position of authority.’ That informed his rise as both a wicketkeeper, and an exceptional white-ball opener.
David Parsons, the ECB’s performance director from 2007-19, admits, ‘Cricket hasn’t always been that good at developing athletes.’ But this cohort generally stood out for their physical dynamism as they were making the transition to the professional game.
‘We had a group of talented athletes that definitely had the potential to go on to bigger things,’ Parsons explains. ‘When you look at that list – potentially putting Root to one side – certainly Stokes, Buttler, Bairstow, Woakes could have been successful in pretty much any sport … their physical and athletic competencies were being developed in a way that perhaps we hadn’t seen previously.’
Andy Flower, who gave Root, Stokes and Buttler their international debuts as England coach, was also struck by the cohort’s athleticism. ‘This generation now are looking after themselves physically, a lot better than my generation did,’ he observes. ‘It’s actually really nice to see that professional sportspeople are looking after themselves better and getting closer to maximising their potential.’
This was another area where the young Buttler stood out. ‘He was strong, with strong arms and a strong core,’ Flower recalls. ‘He worked from an early age on developing that power, from what I could see. He had an all-round development, playing other sports and having a well-rounded schooling in sport in his early developmental period.’
Research has found that playing a range of sports until an athlete is well into their teens can help their wider physical literacy. Specialising later can help athletes become more physically robust, less injury-prone and aid motor development: all transferrable qualities. Skills can also cross-pollinate: Buttler’s trademark scoop shot resembles a hockey deflection; Bairstow has suggested that hockey helped him develop a ‘whip action of the wrists’ which he uses to generate power; Billings believes that his own fast hand-speed is ‘purely down to squash and rackets’.
The multi-sport backgrounds of the 1989–91 cohort was a major factor in their athleticism, explosive running and fielding prowess, Billings suggests. ‘All the best fielders in the world are guys who have played ball sports – rugby, football, whatever – where movement and reading the game and spatial awareness are important. You have to encourage people to play as many sports as possible for as long as possible. Jos is a great example of that, but everyone from that generation is.’
Whether consciously or not, young players were also responding to economic incentives; Roy’s decision to turn down rugby academy offers for a Surrey contract owed in part to the fact he would be ‘earning straight away, instead of training with studying on the side,’ he explains.
Thanks to the Indian Premier League, which launched launched in 2008, and other franchise leagues around the world that followed, the cohort of 1989-91 were the first for whom white-ball cricket offered greater earning potential than Tests. T20 also gave them the platform they craved: ‘Look at all the guys who are gun T20 players: it suits their personalities down to the ground,’ Billings observes.
Internal competition spurred them on. In white-ball cricket, the young Root would ‘watch in awe and want to be able to do it but I physically couldn’t,’ he recalls. At the end of the 2010 Under-19 World Cup, each player had a debrief with coach Mark Robinson. Robinson told Root that, without expanding his game, he would struggle even to be a one-day regular in county cricket, let alone for England.
‘I remember leaving and being really angry,’ Root says. Yet the meeting was the catalyst for him to expand his white-ball game - developing sweeps and scoops - to keep up with his generation. ‘That was how I was going to survive at that level.’
In the weeks ahead, the golden generation will get the chance for the ultimate encore in India: a second consecutive 50-over World Cup, to go with the T20 crown they secured in Australia last year.
Extracted from White Hot: The Inside Story of England Cricket’s Double World Champions by Tim Wigmore and Matt Roller (Bloomsbury, £22.00). Available to buy now