The rise and rise of Ashleigh Gardner – Australia’s stormbreaker
After the heartbreak of the inaugural season of the Women’s Big Bash League, where they lost to their cross-town rivals, Sydney Thunder, in the final over, Sydney Sixers were preparing for the knockout round of season two. In a video released by the Sixers’ a day before the semi-final clash against Hobart Hurricanes, Angela Reaks asked the South African duo of Dane van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp who they believe could play for Australia one day.
“Ash (Gardner) is really close,” Kapp said without missing a beat. “She has performed really well. Especially, in this season.” Van Niekerk was quick in her reply as well. “Ash. Full on, Ash.”
In that semi-final the next day, Ashleigh Gardner casually broke the back of the Hurricanes’ chase of 170 with the wickets of Erin Burns and explosive West Indies all-rounder Hayley Matthews. The team from Tasmania never recovered and the Sixers marched into their second consecutive final. Three days later, they lifted the WBBL trophy for the first time. Two weeks after that, Australian legend Jason Gillespie handed the 19-year-old her T20I cap at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
It was always going to be hard to flourish in that Sixers line-up that boasted the likes of Kapp, van Niekerk, Lisa Sthalekar, Alyssa Healy, Ellyse Perry, Sara McGlashan, and Kim Garth. She found her groove in that second season of WBBL with 414 runs and 10 wickets. She was rewarded with ‘The Young Gun Award’ that season, given to the best player under the age of 21. By the time she broke the record for the fastest WBBL century, she had firmly established the ‘Bish-Bash-Bosh-Ash’ brand of cricket.
That flamboyance continues to be her trademark. Take, for example, her quickfire innings against England in the first ODI in 2017. When she walked in to bat at No.8 in the 43rd over, Australia needed 48 runs. Off the first ball Gardner faced, she clobbered Anya Shrubsole through the square region. The next ball pierced a gap between point and short third for another four. England’s vice-captain Natalie Sciver and Katherine Brunt watched helplessly as Gardner smashed them around the park. By the time she got out for 27 off 18 balls, Australia needed only nine runs off 15 balls.
As her experience grew, she became more aware of her role in the Australian group. She understood that she didn’t need to bat in fifth gear from the very start, instead, she can take her time to build an innings. That was evident against England in the World T20 final 2018 in Antigua, where she struggled to get going against the spin trio of Kirstie Gordon, Danielle Hazell, and Sophie Ecclestone. Instead of getting frustrated, she waited for the bad delivery. The moment England’s captain, Heather Knight, offered a juicy full-toss, Gardner deposited it over the midwicket boundary. Gordon’s final over went for 15 runs as Gardner collected two more sixes. She ended England’s hopes of a miracle with a back-foot punch through covers to level the score. Captain Meg Lanning hit the winning runs and Australia lifted the T20 World Cup trophy for the fourth time.
Gardner, who took three wickets in the first innings and finished unbeaten on 33 off 26 deliveries in the chase, was fittingly crowned Player of the Match.
Gardner, Beth Mooney, and Alyssa Healy played in every one of the 26 ODIs that comprised Australia’s record winning streak. That streak, which lasted between March 2018 and September 2021, is a reflection of Gardner’s evolution as a cricketer. Slated to bat down the order, behind a highly accomplished top six, Gardner was given the license to thrill in the death overs. Her role was to collect as many runs as she could, as quickly as possible. Some days it would come off, and sometimes it wouldn’t.
But the innings that truly underlines her development as a batter came against New Zealand in April 2021. Chasing 212 for their record-breaking 22nd consecutive ODI win, Australia were in a spot of bother, with Rachael Haynes, Lanning, Healy and Mooney back in the shed with the team still requiring 75 runs. Gardner, batting at six, found herself in the middle alongside Perry, who was featuring in the ODI format for the first time since October 2019.
While Gardner kept up with her naturally attacking instincts, she chose her moments to go after the bowlers – waiting for them to present the scoring opportunity, rather than going searching for it. She negotiated Amelia Kerr’s leg-spin by coming down the track and smashing her over mid-off and disrupted Rosemary Mair’s length by clattering her for six and four to get well ahead of the rate.
Her calculated onslaught allowed Perry enough elbow room to find her form in the middle, as she collected a patient 73-ball half-century. Gardner, on the other hand, brought up her third ODI fifty with a cracking six over long-on, thereby sealing the match and the world record. The circle was complete: ‘bish-bosh-bash-Ash’ had found another gear and learned how to get her team over the line.
“That’s the clarity I get within this group. No matter the format, I don’t (have to) change my game. Matthew Mott said, ‘Your role doesn’t really change. Whether we are five for not many or five for heaps.’ Playing my natural game is very important for players like me, who can tend to be more aggressive than other players. I feel like when I shy away from that I get myself in a rut. The most important thing for me is to stick to my guns,” Gardner reflected on her role in the team after bagging the prestigious Belinda Clark Medal during the Ashes Test in January 2022.
Gardner has largely followed that template in the World Cup so far. After missing the first two matches of the tournament due to COVID-19, the 24-year-old finally found herself in the playing XI against New Zealand. Just like her first ball of the Ashes series, she found a boundary off the first ball she faced in the World Cup, the open face of her bat found a vacant spot between point and short third. A picture-perfect cut shot off Hannah Rowe took her to 10 off just four balls.
Rowe and Lea Tahuhu came in the firing line as Gardner blasted the Kiwi bowling attack for 48 runs off just 18 balls. Before she started her innings, crossing 240 looked like a monumental challenge for Australia at the windy Basin Reserve in Wellington, but by the end of the innings, Australia had set a target of 270 for New Zealand. They amassed 55 runs off the final five overs, with 48 runs coming off Gardner’s bat alone. In the following games against South Africa and Bangladesh, she got out trying to take the attacking option, without much success.
Ashleigh Gardner has always attacked the opposition bowlers and she will continue to do so. Ultimately, she is the first star performer to come out of the domestic system led by WBBL. She was allowed to grow and find her spot in the Australian setup that believes in investing and nurturing talent.
After donning green and gold 102 times across formats, Gardner has an aim set for herself: “I would love to be one of the most reliable players in this team, but I think, I am still chasing that consistency within my game. I am always striving to put my team in a winning position whether with the bat or ball. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s what’s driving me to be a better player, to be that reliable person. People don’t have to worry when I go to bat (and think that) it’s going to be short innings. Being able to grow on and off the field also has an impact as well,” she told the media after Australia’s league stage win against South Africa.
In the five years, she has represented Australia, Gardner has matured leaps and bounds. Her growth in the Australian team is a testament to her coupled with the unwavering support of the team management.
On 15 April, Gardner will turn 25. She has a lot of time ahead of her, which she is eager to spend dismantling bowling attacks across the world.