Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Ash Gardner has gone from a career low to a career high in the space of 12 months. The allrounder was named player of the tournament for this season's WBBL after a previous campaign where she had lost all enjoyment for the game.
Gardner, who signed a new three-year deal with Sydney Sixers on Thursday, has scored 339 runs with a strike-rate 153.39 and collected 23 wickets in their dominant regular season where they secured a record 11 wins to book a direct place in Saturday's final. It is a stark contrast, both from a personal and team perspective, to last season where Sixers finished bottom for the first time with just four wins while Gardner made 197 runs and claimed just seven wickets.
Sixers were consigned to the road throughout the 2021 campaign under varying restrictions due to ongoing Covid-19 border closures and Gardner has admitted she found it very difficult while the wider Sixers outfit also struggled to lift themselves.
"Being able to reflect on last year, it was probably one of the lowest points of my career, not only on the field but off the field as well, I just wasn't happy," she said. "I wasn't enjoying my cricket and that's probably what led to my downfall last year. Not being able to go home, see friends and family for over three months, was pretty challenging and it kind of showed with the cricket I was putting out there. It wasn't up to scratch.
"Now, 12 months later, I'm in such a better spot. Really enjoying my cricket and that also comes down to the personnel in this side. It's been a fantastic change and that comes from the top, Lottie [new coach Charlotte Edwards] has been fantastic at that, making sure people have smiles on their faces."
The arrival of Edwards, the former England captain, along with new overseas players Suzie Bates and Sophie Ecclestone has been a catalyst to Sixers' huge turnaround in fortunes. However, a feature of the season has been the spread of performances in the squad: four players have passed 300 runs (while Erin Burns has made 294) and five bowlers have taken 10 or more wickets.
Sydney Sixers are in the WBBL final this year, after finishing bottom last year•Getty Images
"On the field she [Edwards] was a fantastic player herself so she's got some really good insights. But off the field she makes sure to get around to every single person whether they are playing or not just to make sure they are still enjoying themselves," Gardner said. "Because ultimately if teams aren't enjoying themselves throughout these tournaments that's when you seem to be at your lowest. That was probably us last year, we just weren't having fun playing cricket. On the flipside this year we are all enjoying each other's company and that's been what's helped."
Known throughout her career as someone who can clear the fence, it has been Gardner's success with the ball that has given her most satisfaction this season and an unexpected role as a bowler in the power surge which was implemented in WBBL for the first time.
"The consistency is the area of my game I've probably lacked in the past," she said. "More so with the ball, taking wickets consistently is something I haven't been able to do and ultimately have confidence in my bowling. In the past I was probably lacking that consistency of knowing what I wanted to bowl over and over again. Now I'm a lot more mature. Feel like my game has gone to another level which is really exciting.
"To be honest I never thought I'd be an option for the surge but I've been lucky enough to take a couple of wickets - I've also been hit for a few runs - but that's the beauty...with a four-over powerplay and the surge. I know as a batter it's a fantastic thing to able to employ, but also as a bowler you feel like you are in the game. Batters feel like they have to try and target you so that's when you tend to take wickets."
Gardner is widely considered a captaincy candidate for the future but believes she already has a leadership role in the team even without a title.
"Yes, they've got the captaincy and vice-captaincy next to their name but there's so many leaders in that side," she said. "I've been fortunate to be playing there for over five years so feel as though I'm a leader, I don't necessarily need to have the captaincy or vice-captaincy next to main name but still feel I can use my voice and raise opinions where needed."