Ashleigh Gardner stands on the cusp of history
Ashleigh Gardner was walking into Melbourne Cricket Ground in February when it hit her: she was finally making her international debut for Australia Women. In 59 years, no one like her had done what she was about to do.
The 19-year-old pressed her palms together to soothe her nerves and watched as former Australia fast bowler Jason Gillespie walked toward her. In his hand was a bright yellow Australia cap. He handed it to her and said, "Great work on becoming an Australian cricketer."
Gardner flashed a broad smile as she took the cap from the most popular indigenous Australian to play the game.
"I made it," she thought to herself.
The yellow cap represented more than just Gardner's arrival to the national team. She also became the first indigenous woman to play for Australia since 1958. There are so few because of low exposure to the sport, the high costs of playing, and other difficulties that come with being an indigenous sportswoman. Before Gardner - whose heritage is Muruwari, an Aboriginal tribe from northern New South Wales - only one other indigenous woman, Faith Thomas, had played for the national team in its 83-year history.
Gardner will now represent her country in the Women's World Cup as the first female indigenous Australian to play in a World Cup.
When Gardner was six years old, she started playing cricket in her backyard with her older brother, Aaron. Noticing her talent, Gardner's father, Jim, signed her up to play for Riversby Workers Cricket Club, a local boys' team in New South Wales. She played for the club for seven years before getting picked for the Under-12, Under-15 and Under-18 girls' teams, and eventually represented her state team, New South Wales Breakers, with whom she still plays. She is also with Sydney Sixers in the Women's Big Bash League.
A few years ago Gardner was a shy teenager trying to learn as much about the sport as she could from the sidelines. Today, with help from mentors and fellow Australian cricketers, including Rachael Haynes, Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy, she has matured into a strong and confident adult. She now gives presentations in front of hundreds of children about team-building and leadership skills in schools across Australia, and she is the inspiration for numerous athletes - particularly females - in her community to take up sport on a more competitive level.
"Ash is a really proud indigenous Australian," Haynes said, "and that's really important to her, and it's great to have that diversity within a team, but also within a sport as well."
The 2016-17 season has been memorable for Gardner. After her T20 debut for Australia in February, she earned her ODI cap against New Zealand. Her performances in the Women's Big Bash League - she scored 414 runs and took ten wickets - earned her the Rebel Young Gun award. In the process, she helped Sixers win the second season of the tournament. She also led NSW to first place in the domestic Australian tournament.
Even with the frenzy of league and domestic competition, she hasn't strayed from her roots. She captained the first Australian Aboriginal women's team to tour India, and also played in the annual Imparja Cup - the National Indigenous Cricket Championships.
Still, something had to give in Gardner's life. Out of high school, the New South Wales cricket programme set her up with a gardening apprenticeship, as a curator. But in October last, when demands for cricket ramped up, she found it difficult to do both, work and train. She ultimately decided to focus on cricket full-time, which has worked out perfectly for her, Breakers coach Joanne Broadbent said. Not long after, the Australian selectors noticed Gardner's breakthrough season and added her name to the World Cup roster.
Gardner credits her resilience for helping her survive the year - and perform well under pressure. "Cricket's a funny game where you can get five ducks and you need to be ready for the sixth game to hopefully not do that again," she said. "Especially being an allrounder, I need to be bowling and batting in most games, so if I am having a bad day with one, I need to be ready to bounce back and hopefully do the other skill really well. That's the key thing I've tried to do over the past year."
A solid batsman at No. 3, Gardner also evolved into a useful spin bowler, which has made her an asset for all of her teams. Broadbent called her "a player with a great gut instinct". When she was on tour in Sri Lanka, the opposition needed three runs off the last over, and instead of choosing a front-line bowler to bowl the over, Gardner decided to bowl herself. Her team pulled off a victory.
Gardner's coaches and team-mates also applaud her dedication to improving. Once, during a Breakers training session, she was trying to mix things up with her bowling. Broadbent saw her struggle for a while and then watched her walk away with a determined look. Gardner continued running in to bowl by herself. She then noticed her mistake when she happened to look at her action in a mirror perched at the side of the field.
"A player being able to help coach themselves is pretty much the best thing that you can see," Broadbent said.
Playing for different teams has also helped Gardner evolve: She knows when she has to lead - and follow. With Australia, she follows in the footsteps of Healy and Perry, but during the Imparja Cup, she gives directions to her team-mates.
Come the World Cup, she is ready to take on the responsibility that comes with playing for the defending world champions. Her aim for this World Cup is to play in as many matches as possible and contribute with both bat and ball.
"To win the World Cup," she said, "would be incredible."
Aishwarya Kumar is an international writer with ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut