A battle between two spinners has set up an intriguing finale in the Women’s Ashes Test on a Trent Bridge pitch that was increasingly offering something to the bowlers on the fourth day.
Ecclestone claimed her second five-wicket haul of the match to bowl Australia out for 257 in their second innings, which would have looked worse had it not been for half-centuries to Beth Mooney and Alyssa Healy.
And while it still meant that England were set a target of 268, which would be by far the most successful run chase in women’s Test history, and require a record fourth-innings total, it did not look beyond them with the likes of first-innings double-centurion Tammy Beaumont in their line-up.
But then Gardner claimed 3 for 33 in her nine overs, including the wickets of Beaumont, captain Heather Knight and the dangerous Nat Sciver-Brunt, and the hosts’ task became that much harder. With Tahlia McGrath and Kim Garth chiming in with a wicket each, England were five wickets down and still needed 152 runs.
Mooney praised Gardner’s resilience in making herself Australia’s go-to option in a side flush with spin-bowling allrounders when that wasn’t always the case.
“Ash, to her credit has improved her offspin bowling out of sight in the last couple of years,” Mooney said. “We know that she can settle into one end in this format and bowl the ball in the right areas exactly where we want it. So it’s a lot of reward for a serious amount of hard work that she’s put in on and off the field so I couldn’t be more pleased for Ash, I think she’s done a great job for us.
“Soph has so set the benchmark across a number of years in in white-ball cricket and now she’s showing her class in Test cricket but I think Ash isn’t too far behind her. She’s been outstanding in the last couple of years for us. It was probably a time two or three years ago where [regular captain] Meg [Lanning] tended to not throw the ball to Ash in T20 cricket and to her credit she changed what she did and changed her variations and things like that.
“Last WBBL was probably the turning point for Ash. She was player of the tournament, bowled the house down, batted well and now she’s just a mainstay in our line-up with bat and ball so I’m really pleased for her. Hopefully there’s more improvement to come from her and she’s part of the furniture of Australian cricket as well.”
Gardner may well be called upon again early on the final day with legspinner Alana King remaining off the field so far during England’s second innings after copping a knock to the elbow while batting, although she was expected to return to the field at some point on Monday.
Ecclestone has long been a fixture at the top of the ICC’s bowling rankings, which made her a reliable choice for England as their only frontline spinner in this Test side. She sent down 46.2 overs in Australia’s first innings, which yielded 5 for 129 and prompted some tongue-in-cheek suggestions she should be drafted into the England Men’s side as injury cover for the injured Moeen Ali. Her 5 for 65 came from 30.5 overs in Australia’s second innings but it was still a mammoth effort.
Her role also meant that England could hand a debut to Lauren Filer, a 22-year-old quick who repaid the faith with a pivotal spell in Australia’s second innings which included the wickets of Ellyse Perry and McGrath.
“We know the class that is Sophie Ecclestone, she’s been around for a long time,” Mooney said. “I thought she bowled really well changed her pace beautifully. And Lauren’s obviously a young raw talent who can get the ball in some pretty good areas. It was tough conditions. I think the wicket played a bit of a part in that and Soph, to her credit, bowled beautifully to the conditions and Lauren with her raw pace and young talent bowled well as well. Tough conditions, but that’s Test cricket.”
Ecclestone said there wasn’t much she could do to prepare for such a big role in this match, so she just went with it.
“I just made sure I played as much golf as I could to get out and about and take my mind off cricket,” Ecclestone said. “I knew I was going to bowl a lot of overs and I didn’t think it’d be this many but I’m grateful that I was bowling a lot as I’ve come out with ten wickets and I’m absolutely made up with that. You can’t really prepare for that, you’ve just got to go with it and you’ve just got to be tough in the mind.”
Her mental fortitude may have surprised some of her team-mates, she joked, telling Sky Sports: “Some of the girls take the mick out of me, say I’m a bit of an airhead, just have a bit of a laugh, but when it comes to cricket, I do kind of know what I’m doing.”
Returning to seriousness, Ecclestone said England still believed they could win, despite conceding a 10-run first-innings lead to Australia.
“We’ve always believed in that dressing room and we’re definitely going into tomorrow ready to win that Test match. We’d have bitten your hand to have this situation yesterday after our disappointment last night, we missed a bit of an opportunity, but to come by the way we did and bowl them out and to be in this position now we’re just ready for tomorrow.”
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor, women’s cricket, at ESPNcricinfo