Beyond Bourke to the Baggy Green
October 20, 2017
Ashleigh Gardner's heritage takes us back half a century, deep into outback New South Wales. But her fearlessness has taken her front and centre of the Women's Ashes
There's an old saying in New South Wales that refers to a place so distant that its exact location is simply not worth talking about. Out the back of Bourke. The phrase is usually accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand. Forget about it, it's too far away.
Northwest NSW, for which Bourke has become a colloquial catchall, is harsh territory. Dust storms whip the land, rain seldom falls, and the mercury often creeps past 40 degrees. Tucked between Bourke and Lightning Ridge is the Brewarrina Shire, home to around 1500 people but roughly equivalent in area to the European country of Slovenia. These are wide open spaces.
At the northern tip of the Brewarrina region, hemmed in by the Queensland border and on the banks of the Culgoa River, is the floodplain area of Weilmoringle.
The town retains a strong link to its past. In 2011, elders among the Muruwari people (meaning 'to fall with a fighting club in one's hand'), the land's original owners, served as advisors in the formation of a Weilmoringle Indigenous Protected Area. There, remnants of their ancestors' lives are dotted along Burbank Creek in the form of oven sites and scarred grey eucalypts, from which humpies and canoes were fashioned.
Weilmoringle pastoral station used Indigenous Australians for labour through much of the 20th century, with Indigenous community encampments formed on what had become sheep farming land.
In 1970, a 27-year-old woman from the Indigenous camp gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Kate. Five days later, the young mother died from a blood clot. Kate, with the Muruwari spirit running through her, survived.
Almost half a century on, that fighting spirit lives on in a new generation, with a gifted young cricketer who looms as a key figure in Australia's hopes of retaining the Women's Ashes.
Ashleigh Gardner is knocking on history's door. Of the 619 people to have played Test cricket for Australia, only two have been of Indigenous descent: the first was Faith Thomas, who played a lone Test in 1958; and the second was Jason Gillespie, who debuted 38 years later and went on to take 259 Test wickets.
Test cricket for women is the exception rather than the rule. Australia have played just 13 Tests this century – all against England – meaning opportunities to earn a Baggy Green are few and far between. Which in some ways, makes it all the more special.
One such opportunity will arrive in Sydney on November 9, when Australia and England renew rivalries in the traditional format.
"I'm definitely in a good place with my cricket right now," Gardner says. "Hopefully I'll be given that chance to represent my country in a Test match."
The Gardner backstory is, according to the woman herself, an Australian sporting cliché. Ashleigh played cricket in the backyard with her dad, Jim, and older brother, Aaron, and happened to have outstanding hand-eye coordination. Her first attempts at bowling revealed a nice natural action.
"And it was bang on middle stump," remembers Jim. "It was a good start."
It got to the point where, with Jim bowling flat-out in the nets, she was untroubled. And away she went.
Gardner showed an aptitude for most sports she turned her hand to, particularly rugby league and of course cricket, in which she won the batters award for three years straight after signing on to a boys’ team with Revesby in western Sydney.
Here, the story veers away from the hard-work-and-perseverance-got-her-to-the-top stereotype. Gardner was just very bloody good. While there were countless hours chasing sporting dreams, at its essence, it was all in the name of fun. And there was always the safety net of natural talent. Where others slogged, Gardner could skate. And for much of her first 20 years it was enough.
But recently, there has been a change. Teammates have noticed it. Her coach has noticed it. Even her mum has noticed it. A once breezy approach has been replaced by a blinkered focus.
It could prove a seminal shift.
Kate was one of five siblings, though two others had died prior to her arrival. Following their mother's death, the children were split up. Kate's father worked as a station hand on a sheep station in Goodooga, which neighbours Weilmoringle to the east. For a time, the owners of that farm became Kate's foster parents, until her life was struck by more tragedy.
"I lost my foster mother when I was four," she says. "And the same day 10 years later, I lost my foster father."
Kate's foster mother's brother and his wife then took on the guardian responsibilities, though by her teens she was in boarding school in Orange, some 600 kilometres south of where she'd been born.
"I hated it," Kate says. "Hated it with a passion."
Her natural father died shortly after the turn of the century, by which point Kate was living in Padstow in south-west Sydney. She had met a man and had a little boy and girl of their own.
"We got them both into sport when they were really young," she says. "We've tried to give them opportunities there, and instil good values in them."
They named their son Aaron. And their daughter Ashleigh.
Ash Gardner was 18 when she captained the National Indigenous women's squad on a tour to India, in March 2016. It was a monumental responsibility for one so young and the timeline coincides pretty neatly with the arrival of the new Ashleigh Gardner.
The shift happened for two reasons. First, Gardner was – and is – extremely proud of her Indigenous heritage. Her rapid rise to the upper levels of Australian cricket had come so quickly that the idea of becoming a national representative of her people while still a teenager wasn't one she'd had time to properly digest. But as the honours and recognition became the norm, Gardner saw the need to evolve. If she was going to fulfil her potential and do her people proud, the 'naturally gifted teen' identity had to morph into 'professional athlete'. Second, the elite level demanded it of her. Gardner is a talented young cricketer but there's a production line of talented young cricketers in Australia. Once she reached state (and later international) cricket, the skills that made her stand out in underage competitions were no longer enough.
"I needed to change the way I looked at cricket," the 20-year-old says. "It wasn't so much that I wasn't dedicated, (more) I guess my attitude probably wasn't the right way."
And she did. Her training habits changed. Her diet changed. Her attitude changed. These were things that didn't come naturally to Gardner. Cricket training had always been an opportunity to work on a few shots perhaps, but little more than that; she didn't particularly rate her off-breaks, and she could hold her own in the field. And she had never given much thought to what she put in her body in the way of food and drinks. Not anymore. "Being really dedicated is almost something I've had to learn how to do properly," she reflects.
Australia coach Matthew Mott agreed, adding: "She was always a talented player, but the work ethic probably wasn't there. She tended to maybe just hope it would happen. But speaking to a few senior players, there's been an obvious change over the last 18 months. There's still a way to go but just in that period you can see huge development."
Gardner was presented her first international cap by fellow Indigenous representative Gillespie at the MCG in February. It was a significant moment for cricket in Australia. Where the football codes could point to the development of a plethora of Indigenous stars, cricket could not. Gardner played three T20Is in the space of a week, scoring just five runs and taking a single wicket. Her debut had been memorable for the occasion only; she was run-out first ball and did not bowl.
For a player who had dominated in the Rebel Women's Big Bash throughout the summer, it was a gut-wrenching comedown that was difficult to take. The gap between state and national level can be a chasm and Gardner found herself in no-man's land throughout that whirlwind first week.
"Coming up to this level, you don't think it's going to be a massive change," she says. "But it definitely is. My nerves were through the roof and I let that get on top of me."
In a cruel twist, Jim – who had been her equal biggest supporter and religious in his attendance of her matches – was forced to spend the week in hospital, watching on from the television in his room. Just as he was devastated not to be on hand, so too was Ash to not feel his presence from the grandstand, though she could take solace from one thing…
"He didn't miss much," she says with a grin.
Kate Goodwin insists it wasn't any kind of calling or destiny. In fact, her ambition was to become a nurse. Her first job was in a cake shop, before she worked for Australia Post for 18 years. She had come in contact with both family and people she knew who had been through the juvenile justice system, and sought a position in that field, where she worked for three-and-a-half years. Seven years ago she came to Life Without Barriers, where she manages a team of out-of-home care workers for Indigenous children in foster care.
"We've got close to 90 Aboriginal kids in foster care in the team I work in," she says. "Life Without Barriers is a non-Indigenous, not-for-profit organisation, but we have our own specific team just because there is such a need for it. Too much of a need.
"We're getting kids who have been removed from their parents, and they've suffered a great deal of trauma, so trying to repair the damage that's been done takes years. Because of that trauma there are certain behaviours, so trying to find good carers who are good role models and provide safe, nurturing environments isn't always that easy. A lot of people can't cope with the challenging behaviours."
Kate is painfully aware just how fortunate her children were in their upbringing, and she has been able to convey that message to Aaron and Ashleigh.
"They appreciate how lucky they are," she says. "They've never gone without."
There's a recurring word used when talk turns to Gardner's playing style. Teammates Alyssa Healy and Ellyse Perry say it, coach Mott uses it, and when asked about it, Kate Goodwin just nods and smiles.
Ashleigh follows her mother's suit, grinning at the description before confirming it's simply the way it has always been.
"The way I play my cricket is quite attacking," she says. "Having that fearless mentality is about going out there and believing in my skill."
In last summer's WBBL, Gardner hit a tournament high 13 sixes among her 414 runs, underlining her status as one of the game's most exciting young players.
"She's totally fearless," says Perry, her Sydney Sixers and Australia teammate. "It doesn't matter who she's up against … she just goes out there and plays this amazing brash game of cricket where she'll hit you back over your head.
"Doesn't matter what ball it is, or what the context of the match is."
Mott takes it a step further. He believes Gardner's fearlessness is "instinctual". Just as some of the elite Indigenous footballers in this country have earned reputations for making the incredibly difficult look absurdly easy, or for pulling off the miracle play, so it is with Gardner.
The fearlessness goes hand in hand with an innate ability, and the product is generally compulsive viewing.
"She does special things," says Mott. "She'll hit balls for six she has no right to. She might look out of position and then she'll just whip one for six. Everyone else looks quite perplexed as to how it's happened.
"I know her favourite player is Andrew Symonds. Those sorts of players keep it simple, and play the game how it should be played: see the ball, hit the ball.
"Nothing ruffles her. At times as her coach you almost want to put a rocket up her because she's drifting in the field, but next minute she'll take a catch out of nowhere.
"We're putting a lot of work into her anticipation in the field, and once she gets that right, and tidies up a few areas, she's got the potential to be a standout fielder in world cricket."
An Indigenous elder with a boomerang lobbed up to the Australia team's training session in Sydney last year. It was Gardner's doing. She was a new addition to the squad and keen to give her teammates a taste of her culture, and thought this would be a fun way to do it. Ironically, she had never thrown a boomerang herself.
"Most of the girls really got the hang of it," she reflects. "Everyone was so happy doing it and really thankful that I'd organised it, so it was a really awesome experience."
The skilful cricketers even managed to throw the boomerang in the proper way to ensure it would return to them, and the rewards came back to Gardner via the appreciation of the group.
"That was a great session," Perry recalls. "Ash is tremendously proud of her heritage and really respectful of it as well. She's educated me on a lot of things in her culture. I know it shapes her a lot and it's a big part of her personality. She's a really special role model in her community."
And while the immense responsibility of representing a minority could be viewed as a burden on one so young, Healy knows if anyone is capable of handling it, it's Gardner.
"I don't like to see so much pressure on her, but being an Indigenous player, there's always talk about that and inspiring the next generation," she says. "But she's the perfect character for that; it's water off a duck's back.
"She just goes out there and plays cricket with a smile on her face and tries to do her best. I think that's inspiring for everyone in Australia, Indigenous or not."
The pioneering ways of Faith Thomas were borne out in other sports in the decades that followed her entry to international sport in 1958, notably through Evonne Goolagong Cawley (tennis), Cathy Freeman (athletics), Nova Peris (hockey and athletics) and Kyah Simon (football).
Thomas was the first Indigenous sportswoman to represent Australia and the 84-year-old remains a touchstone for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
"Meeting Faith was actually pretty funny – she's a bit of a character, a bit of a larrikin, even at her age," Gardner grins. "I've met her twice now and she's always joking around, telling us stories about when she was growing up.
"Her time in the Australian team was so different to what it is now. Players like me really appreciate what she's done … she does inspire people not only in the cricketing world but in the nursing world, which she used to do as a young person."
In an interview with cricket.com.au in 2015, Thomas spoke of her hopes that a young Indigenous cricketer would one day follow in her footsteps.
"I'd just love to see an Aboriginal kid running around out there, because I know they've got the potential to do it – I've seen it," she said. "It's amazing what they've got these days to achieve their full potential. There's nothing really there to stop them."
It sounds like a marketing tag line, but this summer is the biggest ever for the Australian women's cricket team. With a three-format Ashes series, a sold-out Allan Border Field for the opening ODI and a new wave of professionalism sweeping women's sport, the elite female cricketers are suddenly more in the spotlight than ever.
Gardner pushed away the nerves to bowl impressively during the ODI World Cup in England, collecting eight wickets in as many matches and proving Australia's most economical bowler as she cemented her position in the 50-over side and pushed her claims in the other two formats.
"In the last 12 months something has clicked with her bowling," says Mott. "I saw her at the Gabba at the start of last summer and she looked a completely different bowler. In my opinion she was probably the bowler of the tournament for us over there in England; she asked a question every ball, she was tight and she looked like taking wickets.
"The big thing for us is getting her batting more consistent, and ideally in the long-term she can be that number six in one-day and Test cricket. She's also shown great ability up the top of the order for the Sixers, so she's a versatile player, and a genuine allrounder."
November 9 is the date Gardner has fixed in her mind. That's when she could claim another slice of history for herself, her family and her people by receiving a Baggy Green cap in the day-night Test at North Sydney Oval.
"I think I'll be crying if that happens," says Kate. "To get a Test cap, that would just be the ultimate.
"And I love watching cricket at North Sydney. I particularly loved it when Ash hit one over the little grandstand there last summer, straight out of the ground."
And that sums up Kate Goodwin's daughter; whatever happens this summer, one senses she will live or die by the sword.
To fall with a fighting club in one's hand.
It's the very definition of the Muruwari people, and a spirit that lives on in Ashleigh Gardner.
Commonwealth Bank Women's Ashes
Australia squad (ODI and Test): Rachael Haynes (C), Alex Blackwell (VC), Kristen Beams, Nicole Bolton, Lauren Cheatle, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, Jess Jonassen, Tahlia McGrath, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Belinda Vakarewa (Test only), Elyse Villani, Amanda-Jade Wellington.
England squad: Heather Knight (c), Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt, Sophie Ecclestone, Georgia Elwiss, Jenny Gunn, Alex Hartley, Danielle Hazell, Laura Marsh, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Nat Sciver, Fran Wilson, Lauren Winfield, Danielle Wyatt.
First ODI Allan Border Field, October 22
Brisbane Charity Partner: Lord Mayor's Charitable Trust
Second ODI Coffs International Stadium, October 26
Third ODI Coffs International Stadium, October 29
Day-Night Test North Sydney Oval, November 9-12
First T20 North Sydney Oval, November 17
North Sydney Charity Partner: McGrath Foundation
Second T20 Manuka Oval, November 19
Third T20 Manuka Oval, November 21
Canberra Charity Partner: Lord's Taverners ACT