On the morning before the Women’s Ashes Test, under a low churn of English cloud while drizzle still thickened the air between Taunton and the Quantock Hills, a low-key ceremony took place on the field.
In the tradition of the past couple of decades, three Australian players on debut were presented with their team caps by former players who had some link to the present — Tayla Vlaeminck by fellow fast bowler Mitchell Starc, Sophie Molineux by former captain Belinda Clark, and Ashleigh Gardner by fellow Indigenous Australian cricketer Dan Christian.
“I grew up in Narrandra in country New South Wales. My heritage on my Dad’s side is the Wiradjuri tribe. I grew up knowing and being a part of an Aboriginal family and Aboriginal culture. I loved my upbringing, and it’s nice to be able to represent them now,” Christian told me in an interview last year.
“It’s probably something you become more conscious of as you get older.”
Gardner comes from the Muruwari people, also of regional New South Wales. On that first day she was able to take a step that Christian came close to several times without ever quite making — both had played for Australia in 50-over and 20-over internationals, and now Gardner would go on to play a Test.
She would have a long wait before she actually got to do any playing. Australia’s top order soaked up one day, rain soaked through most of the second. Gardner opens the batting in Big Bash cricket, famed for range hitting that is the longest and cleanest in the league. But she gets into Australian sides on the strength of her off-spin, and has to settle for a spot well down the order.
Indigenous cricketers are used to waiting. Gardner was expected to debut in 2017, with even the media manager putting her up for interview ahead of the match, only for Tahlia McGrath to be preferred at the last minute as a seam-bowling option.
Christian waited on the fringes of Test squads any number of times before selections fell another way.
The same in the first-class game. In the 1870s, Unaarrimin played once for Victoria under the name of Johnny Mullagh. Murrumgunarrimin was recorded once for New South Wales as Twopenny. Both were ostracised thereafter.
Albert Henry and Jack Marsh played a handful of games for Queensland and NSW respectively just after 1900, as did Eddie Gilbert in the 1930s. All were no-balled out of the game. Faith Thomas played a Test in the 1950s, Ian King one Shield season in 1969-70, Michael Mainhardt a few games in the 1980s.
Add in Jason Gillespie in the 1990s and that was the entirety of Indigenous inclusion in professional cricket in the 20th century.
In Taunton, as Australia contemplated the third morning with 341 on the board and two days to play, there was a strong argument to declare and try to knock England over. As the fastest scorer, it was strange that Gardner had not been sent in at number seven before the rain on the second day.
On the third she watched Beth Mooney bat on with Jess Jonassen, then with Sophie Molineux. There was a strong prospect that Gardner wouldn’t bat at all.
In the end, she only got out there for a quarter of an hour. Her captain Meg Lanning started to get twitchy about the lunch break, letting Mooney reach a half-century before gesturing to put her foot down. When Mooney gave up a catch trying to comply, Lanning called the whole thing off. Gardner had the briefest of Test canters with five not out from 11 balls.
But she did get her chance to bowl, giving her off-breaks a rip to produce by far the highest average turn in the match of 4.6 degrees. An early spell of four overs went for five runs, her second spell settled into a spin partnership of contrasting styles with Molineux.
Her third bagged her first Test wicket with its first ball, squeezing through Katherine Brunt’s defensive shot to find a way onto the stumps. Then she bowled the final ball of the day as a miniature comedy play, with a long pause for a helmet to bring in a third close catcher, a lot of gesturing and conversation, then a drag-down way outside leg stump that was kicked contemptuously away.
Watching from the balcony at Taunton, Gardner was of course just another cricketer out in the middle — a distant figure in whites having a solid and unexceptional day. Which was as it should be. It often seems like too much to expect individuals to carry the weight of representing marginalised communities with every moment in the public eye.
“I’d like to see that it’s just the norm having Indigenous people picked in Australian sides, all the time,” was how Indigenous batsman D’Arcy Short put it last year. “It would still be a massive thing, but not like ‘he’s the third or fourth to be playing for Australia’.”
It is this that the movement for equality is really about, and this that today delivered. Five runs from 11 balls. Fifteen overs, one wicket for 24.
A cricketer playing for Australia. An Indigenous woman playing a Test match. All these things at once, and one more step towards it not being rare, towards the wait being slight enough to go unnoticed.