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AAP and ESPNcricinfo staff
Ashleigh Gardner's increased maturity has paved the way for her to become the first Indigenous player to claim one of Australian cricket's top honours.
Gardner, 24, was on Saturday named winner of the Belinda Clark Award, crowning her as Australia's best female player for the past 12 months.
The offspinning allrounder was told by Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley of her award on Friday night, admitting she asked him more than once if he had the right person. But Gardner's growth over the past year means she is a more than deserving recipient.
She found consistency in 2021, going from a big hitter to solid performer with 281 runs at 35.10 across all formats in the past year. She scored four half-centuries in that time, highlighted by an unbeaten 73 in a successful T20I chase in New Zealand in March.
Gardner also produced her maiden Test half-century, against India, before backing it up against England in the Ashes match in Canberra - although the latter match came outside of the award voting period.
Adding to Gardner's improvement, she was in the team's top-five run-scorers and top-three wicket-takers in each of the three formats.
"I've certainly grown up both on and off the field," Gardner said. "I think maturing off the field probably has an impact on my game on the field. I feel really comfortable within this side.
"I've known what my role has been and I've been really clear in the direction that I need to do with either bat or ball in hand."
Gardner's maturity has also been most evident in her bounce back in recent months. While her international success has been clear, her underwhelming WBBL with Sydney Sixers - which included a run of four consecutive ducks - left her battling mentally and needing time out after months in bubbles.
She made the point to see Australia's sports psychologist, took a few weeks out and then rebounded with a first-innings 56 and 1 for 27 with the ball in the current Test against England.
"You can find yourself in some pretty dark places when you aren't in the best form. And that was certainly me," Gardner said. "I can openly admit that my mental health probably wasn't great.
"But I think it's good for people's careers to go on that slight decline to then actually find the confidence again and find the rhythm back in your batting.
"Being able to go back into the [NSW] Breakers set up around a different bunch of girls was really instrumental to actually feel confident again. As soon as I got back into this [Australian] set-up, it was full faith that I would get back to where I wanted to be."
Gardner picked up 54 votes to finish clear of T20 player-of-the-year Beth Mooney (47) and ODI recipient Alyssa Healy (39).