Receiving a Baggy Green cap is the pinnacle for any cricketer, and only 634 Australians have earned the illustrious honour. But just three of them come from an Indigenous background.
Jason Gillespie is the only male cricketer in that trio, and the Australian public only became aware of his true heritage several years after his Test debut.
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Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with powerhouse all-rounder Ashleigh Gardner, who is cementing herself as one of the leading Indigenous figures in Australian sport.
When a 19-year-old Gardner made her international debut in February 2017, she became the first Indigenous woman to represent the Australian cricket team since Faith Thomas played her lone Test match in 1958.
Gardner has since established herself as a stalwart in all three formats, and played a crucial part in Australia’s T20 World Cup triumph in March.
Ashleigh Gardner of Australia.Source:AAP
Gardner’s mother, a proud Muruwari woman, taught her children about their culture from an early age, but the cricket star has only recently become invested in learning about the history of her people.
“I’ve never shied away from it,” Gardner told news.com.au. “I’ve always been really happy to tell people my background, and it’s been really awesome to connect with other family members and chat about all things culture.
“It’s probably happened more so within the past 12-18 months when I’ve started to want to learn more to help educate other people around certain issues.”
The now 23-year-old established the Ash Gardner Foundation earlier this year, which aims to empower the Aboriginal community through education, sport and the arts.
By focusing on the Aboriginal youth, the foundation hopes to encourage schooling and reduce incarceration numbers to close the gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
“My big dream for the foundation is to increase the percentage of Aboriginal kids finishing school, because the rate at the moment is quite low, and it’s something that I think is most important,” Gardner said.
“I feel like with a really good education and stability, I can change that through generations, implementing a program to give these kids a more positive outlook going towards later in life.”
Ash Gardner of the Sixers.Source:Getty Images
Following the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, athletes from around the world have opted to take a knee before sporting contests in support of the movement.
Unafraid of any potential backlash, several WBBL players and staff have chosen to take a knee before every match in the T20 tournament, but Gardner had no interest in joining the protest.
“Personally, I didn’t really want to do that,” Gardner said. “And that’s why I haven’t done that, and neither has my team. I think they’re in support of my decision.
“The whole WBBL is probably on different pages.
“Everyone stands up against racism if you’re a decent human being, but the whole taking a knee thing is more towards institutional racism, which is why it’s so prevalent in America at the moment.
“Of course I’m against racism — Australia can be a very racist country, especially to my people.
“But taking a knee probably wasn’t something I was willing to do.”
Barefoot Circle with several WBBL players.Source:Instagram
Instead, Gardner took part in a Barefoot Circle with several teammates ahead of the WBBL tournament to celebrate the Indigenous culture and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land.
Although only six cricketers with acknowledged Indigenous heritage have represented Australia on the international stage, that number is destined to grow over the coming decades.
According to Cricket Australia, playing numbers among Indigenous people have risen significantly, from 8000 in 2011/12 to 54,000 in 2016/17.
Gardner is one of five Indigenous athletes in the WBBL bubble, including Sydney Thunder young guns Hannah Darlington and Anika Learoyd.
“I spent all pre-season with them,” Gardner said. “It’s so exciting to see some young Indigenous cricketers coming through, and just to see them mature as people, but also as cricketers as well.
“I’ve known them both from their early teen years playing in the National Indigenous Championship, so it’s really awesome to see them grow.”
Ash Gardner of the Sixers, Hannah Darlington and Anika Learoyd of the Thunder, Ella Haywood of the Renegades and Mikayla Hinkley of the Heat.Source:Supplied
Gardner unearthed a hidden talent during the coronavirus lockdown, which has developed into an inescapable hobby.
The Sydney-sider’s dot painting collection caught the attention of her peers, with the likes of Alyssa Healy and Mel Jones requesting commissions. And Gardner has continued developing her skillset in the WBBL bubble, blanketing cricket shoes to showcase her culture on the field.
“I had a few people jump on board who want their shoes done,” Gardner said. “I ended up buying some paint pens, and I think I got seven or eight players on board to wear those shoes.
“It’s pretty awesome, because there’s been some good feedback from the players themselves, but also the media as well.”
Ashleigh Gardner with one of her paintings.Source:Supplied
On Wednesday, Cricket Australia unveiled an Indigenous playing kit which the national men’s team would wear during their upcoming T20 series against India.
The Australian women’s team donned a similar Indigenous jersey during one of their short-format matches against England last year, and their male counterparts have followed suit.
“It was beautiful, I want one to be honest,” Gardner conceded.
“I think cricket’s one of the most loved sports within Australia, especially the Australian men’s team, and it’s awesome for the guys to be wearing that.”
The design features the Walkabout Wickets artwork, which has been imprinted on the collar of previous national team kits, including at the 2019 Ashes series in England.
In July, Gardner had the opportunity to meet Sydney Swans icon Adam Goodes to discuss foundations.
The former AFL star’s problems with racism are well-documented, but Goodes has also been committed to helping Indigenous youth, setting up the Go Foundation with Michael O’Loughlin in 2014.
“We talked all things foundations,” Gardner said. “He has a pretty successful one, kind of in the same space, trying to support our own.
“It was awesome to meet him, but to talk not just about foundations, but sport and life in general, trying to find the best way to have positive outlooks towards things outside of sporting life.”
Ashleigh Gardner and Adam Goodes.Source:Instagram
Gardner was awarded Player of the Series during September’s three-match T20 series against New Zealand in Brisbane, but has struggled to convert that form into the WBBL.
After eight fixtures, her tournament highlight has been a classy half-century against the Hobart Hurricanes, but otherwise hasn’t mustered a double-digit score for the Sixers.
“It’s obviously been a little bit inconsistent, which is really annoying, because I felt quite good coming into this Big Bash,” Gardner said.
“But I guess that’s the beauty of cricket, it’s not always your day, and you’re probably more likely to have bad days than good days.
“You realistically want to do the best for your team, and that’s exactly what I do when I go out to play for whoever I’m playing for.”
In the shorter formats, Gardner typically occupies the middle overs with tight bowling spells and key breakthroughs.
But she has taken on a new role with the ball this season, regularly called upon by Sixers captain Ellyse Perry to roll the arm over at the death.
“It’s not a thing I’ve done in the past, mainly because obviously batters try too target spinners at the back-end,” Gardner said.
“It’s just something I’ve tried to adjust to and just tried to bowl really consistently.”
Ash Gardner of the Sixers.Source:Supplied
Still in the early stages of her professional career, Gardner already boasts 1125 runs and 64 wickets in international cricket.
But as her resume continues to expand, she won’t stop using her platform to educate and inspire.
“Sport brings people together,” Gardner said. “We’ve seen that throughout the world and in different cultures.
“We’re going in the right direction with trying to nut out these issues, whether that’s to do with culture or to do with your sexual identity.
“I think cricket’s going in the right way, and that’s really exciting to be a part of and to hopefully have a voice and to be portraying these positive messages going forward.”
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