On and off the field the allrounder is playing an increasingly central role in Australian cricket
There are many factors that have created the daylight that is between the Australia team and the rest of the world. One of them was on view in their record-breaking 22nd ODI win when Ash Gardner came in at No. 6 and turned what could have been a slightly uncertain situation into a charge to history.
Gardner, one of four players to appear in the full winning streak, struck 53 off 41 balls in the latest example of how her batting has evolved over the last 12 months or so. There has not been much international cricket played in this season, but in what there has Gardner has excelled: across seven innings in ODIs and T20Is she has scored 253 off 175 balls – and that includes a first-ball duck in the second ODI in Brisbane.
Not promoting her to No. 4 in the second T20I in Napier with nine overs to go was a rare misstep and one acknowledged by coach Matthew Mott.
She arrived on this tour in good form having made three half-centuries in five innings for New South Wales in the WNCL (average 64.00, strike rate 99.61) which followed an under-par WBBL for the Sydney Sixers which was ended early by her latest concussion layoff.
On Sunday, Gardner collected two boundaries in her first six deliveries – both off Amelia Kerr who she had also taken down in calculated fashion in the first T20I – which immediately deflated New Zealand after they had managed a couple of quick wickets to briefly open the door.
Then her next 12 deliveries brought seven runs. The asking rate was never an issue for Australia but it highlighted the selective approach that is now a growing feature of Gardner’s game. In the space of the next four balls there was a six down the ground and another boundary threaded through the off side.
Gardner currently has the highest ODI strike rate (123.27) of any batter to have played more than 20 innings. Power has always been part of her game but now with a greater awareness of building an innings she is becoming a formidable package (and that’s even before her offspin is factored in).
Sometimes a player is made for a certain position and at the moment Gardner is a perfect fit for that No. 6 slot with the ability to move up if a game situation allows as it did in the third ODI in Brisbane last year. However, it is tempting to wonder what Gardner, who turns 24 shortly after this tour, could develop into as a batter in the years to come.
“Think that’s something Ash has improved in a lot over the last year, the ability to build an innings and pace herself nicely,” captain Meg Lanning said. “She can take a few balls to play herself in because she can accelerate so quickly. We’ve seen that in the couple of games she’s got going in this series.
“She’s a great batter, someone who can take the game away from the opposition pretty quickly. It’s a pretty tough line-up to move up the order in at the moment but no doubt if Ash got the opportunity to bat higher think she’d do an extremely good job so it’s nice to have some good options.”
Speaking before the one-day series, the development was also acknowledged by Mott.
“There’s been no doubt she’s improved considerably the last couple of years – her maturity around training, the way she prepares, she’s always been a very strong leader but it’s her growth in the last 12 to 18 months. The perfect example on the field was the first T20 when she was so composed. She chewed up a few balls to start with, didn’t panic and played an excellent knock – one of a senior player.”
And it’s not just in the middle that she is playing a leading role. As one of only six Indigenous players to so far represent Australia she has taken a leading role in education and advocacy, often speaking with great clarity around important and potentially challenging topics.
“Off the field she’s done a lot of work driving our connection back to country and our Indigenous education,” Mott said. “She’s definitely been a keen figure in that, helping players understand how we can drive that forward in that space. Ash has been exceptional the last couple of years, just really good to see her in that sweet spot at the moment.”
There’s a very fine allrounder developing. There could also be a future captain.
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo