All-round Gardner shows Gujarat Giants how to 'be brave' in turnaround victory
Delhi Capitals fall short by 11 runs despite a late partnership from Arundhati Reddy and Shikha Pandey
Gujarat Giants 147 for 4 (Wolvaardt 57, Gardner 51*) beat Delhi Capitals 136 (Kapp 36, Garth 2-18, Gardner 2-19) by 11 runs
Ashleigh Gardner doesn't get bogged down easily. She calls herself a "massive confidence player". Like most Australians in the WPL, she has been a world champion several times, and tends to rescue her team from situations in which normal teams usually lose. She was the Player of the Series less than a month ago at the T20 World Cup, and just prior to that, for the bilateral T20Is in India in December 2022.
On Thursday night at the Brabourne Stadium, she walked in at No. 4 when Gujarat Giants were in a precarious situation, in the game as well as in the league. Already languishing at the bottom of the table after losing their last two games, they were crawling along at 53 for 2 around the halfway mark with their league top-scorer, Harleen Deol, just dismissed. Opener Laura Wolvaardt was struggling for fluency on 18 off 20.
Gardner, an ace finisher for Australia, walked in and operated at a different level altogether. She struck five fours in her first 16 balls and gave a similar message to Wolvaardt: "If the ball's in your area, go for it." It was as if Gardner had flicked a switch on in her partner's game.
In T20 leagues, where there are always some weak links in the bowling, most batters see off the gun bowlers and target the others. Gardner's confidence was such that she and Wolvaardt went after Capitals' most fiery and wily bowlers, Marizanne Kapp and Jess Jonassen. When Kapp bowled the 15th over, Gardner chipped the second ball over the bowler's head for four and three balls later Wolvaardt charged down to smash a pull for four more. Wolvaardt then took on Jonassen single-handedly; a six over long-off, two more pulls for fours in the space of three balls to make it a 15-run over.
With 26 runs off two overs, the Giants' scoring rate shot up from under six to nearly seven an over.
"We just kept speaking about building a partnership together because that's what we've lacked doing over these last few games, we've lost wickets in clumps and we haven't had those partnerships," Gardner said at the press conference. "I said to her, 'If the ball's in your area, go for it'. We know what her strengths are, she hits over the off side so well. She got a couple of balls that she could throw her hands at. I think it was the Jess Jonassen over that ended up going for 15 and I think that was the momentum switch that we needed."
Wolvaardt got to her fifty off 41 balls in the next over and soon Gardner raced from 31 off 25 to a 33-ball half-century with back-to-back fours by carting Arundhati Reddy around, before going after Jonassen for two more fours to nearly touch 150. "Pressure affects people differently," she said. "Lucky enough for me, I've played in a lot of high-pressure situations so I feel like I personally can stay quite calm and hopefully I can put that on to other people as well. So it's being really calm in those situations and really calm with my language as well to other players to make sure that they stay really positive because the game wasn't over until it was over."
Giants knew they were below-par on a pitch that was slightly slow yet batting-friendly. Back in the dugout at the halfway mark, Gardner got her team-mates together and gave them a clear message: be brave.
"I just said, '147 is an okay score but we're going to have to bowl well'. And we were probably going to have to bowl them out to win that game. I was just trying to reiterate the message to the girls around being brave and playing with freedom because ultimately, we needed to win these games and it was almost like we could play with freedom and just back each other up in the field. But more importantly just enjoy it. In moments like this, they go so fast and when you're not winning, you forget about the enjoyment side of it, and that's why we all play cricket because we love it and because we have fun playing with our friends and that's the main thing."
And a brave combined effort it turned out to be. Uncapped left-arm spinner Tanuja Kanwar played cat and mouse with Shafali Verma to knock over her leg stump three balls after being hit for a six. When the spinners were being dispatched for boundaries, captain Sneh Rana bravely bowled the last powerplay over and sent down a flat delivery at 89kmh to trap Meg Lanning for 18.
When Capitals needed 70 off 60, Deol bravely pitched one up to see Jonassen hole out to long-off, and when Gardner came on for her third, she smartly slowed the ball down, at 82.8kmh, to beat Taniya Bhatia swinging across the line and strike her stumps.
"It's being able to hit my natural lengths and be brave enough to slow my pace down a little bit," Gardner said of her bowling on Thursday, "because as spinners you get hit and there's no point me bowling 95kmh, because it's going to go even further. So it's just about being really brave and I think we were really brave tonight with the bowling attack."
Apart from some nervous moments in the tense chase when the Gujarat fielders started to fumble and leak overthrows, they also ran two big hitters out. Sophia Dunkley fired in a throw from cover to the wicketkeeper while there was a mix-up between Alice Capsey and Jemimah Rodrigues, and the former fell short. The biggest blow came in the 14th over when Kapp took off for a risky single and WPL debutant Ashwani Kumari took the stumps down with a direct hit to send back Kapp for 36 off 29 and help Giants take a big step towards their win.
Eventually Capitals fell short, but they may have learnt a lesson from their opponents when under pressure: be brave.
Vishal Dikshit is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo