ULLADULLA'S Matthew Gilkes has always been pegged as a future star of first class cricket, both nationally and internationally.
This year is proved why, during an exceptional rookie season with the NSW Blues.
After being signed by Cricket NSW in May, the talented batsman didn't put a foot wrong all pre-season, which led to him making his one-day debut on September 30.
During this match, the Ulladulla United product scored 10 off 16 balls, as the Blues went down by eight runs to Western Australia in Sydney.
"I was first included in the squad list for our match with Queensland in Brisbane, which I received via email," Gilkes said.
"Unfortunately I only carried the drinks on that occasion.
"However, after Brisbane, Phil Jacques (Blues coach) pulled me aside and told me there was a good chance I'd be playing in the next game, as Kurtis Patterson had hurt his hamstring and so I needed to make sure I was ready.
"When I got to Drummoyne Oval, Jacquesy told me I was playing. I was absolutely stoked, as it had been something I had been aspiring towards since I was a kid."
The 21-year-old built on this knock, going on to play four more one-day games for his state.
During those five innings, Gilkes made150 runs at an average of 30 - with a high score of 82 (from 51 balls) coming against Western Australia on October 2.
The very next month, Gilkes was rewarded for his strong play by making his Sheffield Shield debut against South Australia (November 1-4) - helping NSW win by 96 runs at Adelaide Oval.
"Playing in the Sheffield Shield is what every cricketer in Australia strives to do - it's one of the pinnacles," he said.
"The longer form of the game is the stepping stone to the Test team, which is everyone's dream, including mine.
"I was lucky enough to play alongside guys with Test experience, like Steve Smith, David Warner, Kurtis Patterson, Moises Henriques, Peter Nevill and the four bowlers (Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc).
"I got to see how they approach the game, which has been great for my development.
"They are all so knowledgable and are willing to give me advice whenever I want it."
Following another two Shield matches, Gilkes made eight appearances for the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash - helping them reach this year's finals series.
"Although the team went pretty well, the Big Bash didn't go as well for me personally as I had hoped," he said.
"I stepped into a new role this season, batting at four - something I'd never done, as I have always opened in Twenty20.
"It took me a while to find my feet.
"Although I'm disappointed with how I played, I learnt a lot and will take it all on board ahead of next year's campaign."
The Shoalhaven product then returned to red ball cricket, playing matches for the Blues against both South Australia and Tasmania.
"It was a flat wicket at Bankstown, so we knew if we remained patient, the runs would come - which they did," he said.
"It was unbelievable to score my maiden half century.
"As a young bloke early in your career, you always want to prove that you are up to this standard.
"This score gave me the belief that I am and I will carry that momentum forward in my career.
"As well as my innings, it was great to spend time at the crease with Daniel Hughes (who scored 103 and 136 in that match) and contribute to a big score, which set up a solid win for us."
This victory solidified NSW's top spot on the ladder, despite going down by nine wickets to Tasmania in the following fixture.
With the final round against Victoria cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, NSW finished on top of the table at the conclusion of the regular season.
Cricket Australia, days later, decided to suspend the rest of the Shield season, handing Gilkes' Blues the title - their first since 2013-14.
"Obviously it's not the way we wanted the season to end - we would have loved a chance to play in a Shield final," he said.
"However, we still got to take home the silverware, which all the boys know we thoroughly deserved.
"We were the best team all year and finished with two more wins than any other side.
"We didn't let that take any shine off the title - as a team, I couldn't have asked for a better start to my Shield career."
Gilkes, who is now back in Ulladulla with his family, is resting up before his second campaign with the Blues.
"I'm personally happy my first season - it's laid a solid foundation for me to build on in coming years," he said.
"During my time off, the coaches want me to work on my decision making.
"There are times I can be a little loose with my shot selection and if I can fix that, it should lead to me being able to spend more time at the crease."
At this stage, Gilkes and his Blues squad are slated to return to camp in May for their pre-season.
"As far as we know, we are still going back into camp at the end of May, to start our fitness training and then skills, ahead of the 2020/21 domestic season," he said.
"However, we all appreciate that could be later, because of the current coronavirus epidemic.
"Until we hear anything, I will just keep doing my part, by staying at home as much as I can and trying to limit the spread of the virus."