GROWING up in country NSW, current Sydney Thunder star Sam Bates had to fight tooth and nail for her cricket dream.
From being one of only two girls at her Newcastle junior club and being forced to play with the boys, to fighting back from an ACL injury at 16, Bates has overcome whatever has been thrown her way.
Now with the extra avenues in place for junior cricketers, especially females, to chase their sporting dreams, Bates believes now is as good a time as any to get involved in the 11-a-side game.
"When I was coming through the ranks, we didn't even have Milo Blast or what's now called Woolworths Cricket Blast - so it was pretty much backyard cricket and then straight into matches with the boys," Bates, who explained there is now an all-girls team in the junior Newcastle competition, said.
"There was no pathway for me whatsoever and a lot of talented girls my age probably suffered because of that, rather choosing to join the workforce as they didn't know where cricket could take them.
"All the competitions and avenues are extremely important for girls that want to stay in the sport - it's come along way, especially for the country players.
"Similarly to Newcastle, girls in the Shoalhaven now have a pathway into Greater Illawarra before possibly progressing into the NSW system.
"And the fact women's matches, such as the World Cup one-day final, are shown on television, the players are finally getting the recognition they deserve, which obviously has a trickle-down effect - as girls now grow up wanting to be the next Ellyse Perry or Meg Lanning."
The 28-year-old on Tuesday chatted with students from both Nowra Christian School and Bowral Public School, as part of the annual NSW Country Cricket Blitz - which this year was done virtually via Zoom.
"The chats with the kids were really great, despite this year being a little different due to the virtual format," Bates said.
"It would have obviously been awesome to be there in person with them all but that didn't stop them from asking me plenty of interesting questions.
"It was really exciting to see so many people, especially girls, interested in the cricketing world.
"It's amazing we can still run this important program despite all that's going on around the world."
While Bates admits COVID-19 has slightly hindered the ascendancy of women's cricket, she still sees a very bright future for it.
"It gets to a point where the men's program can only expand to a certain point and Cricket Australia has realised the best way for the sport to continue to evolve is through the women's game," she said.
"Obviously AFL is leading the way right now in terms of growth in Australia but I think Cricket Australia is doing a great job targeting those girls in the under 12s age bracket but also the year 10 to 12 mark, where a lot of players drop off because they don't think they're good enough.
"It's obviously great to get kids in playing the sport early but we need to retain them because they are the future of cricket in this country."
Bates is currently in Hobart, where she has spent most of lockdown, after playing with Tasmania in the Women's National Cricket League.
"Thankfully, life is pretty normal for us down in Tasmania at the moment," Bates, who claimed eight wickets from the Tigers' six matches, said.
"We don't have any restrictions at training apart from getting our temperature taken and have been able to do our sessions as normal, even though the season (supposed to start in September) has been postponed until January."
This was left-arm orthodox spinners first season with Tasmania, after numerous seasons with the ACT system - a similar route that Shoalhaven product Matthews Gilkes and Tom Engelbrecht took on their cricketing journeys.
"At the time when I was coming through the system, there were 11 players playing for NSW who were also in the Australian team," Bates, who admits she became a spinner by fluke after having her brother and father (who were both pace bowlers), along with her physio, tell her she wouldn't make it as a seamer, said.
"To break into that set-up was impossible and admittedly, I've never been the most talented cricketer going around, rather being a scrapper.
"It's definitely not frowned upon now to leave you home state, in an attempt to further your cricketing career and ACT is a great platform for that.
"My story in a way is similar to Nathan Lyon, who struggled in the early parts of his career before breaking through in his late 20s - he's a phenomenal player, who shows just how positive the ACT system can be.
"Cricket is about chance as much as it is about skill."
Bates, who has 53 wickets in her 59 matches, will now shift her attentions to her sixth Women's Big Bash League with the Thunder, which will be played in a Sydney hub from October 17.
"As a team, we've had plenty of discussions how to best approach this hub and to me, the main thing is to concentrate on the positives," Bates, who explained winning WBBL1 and losing on the final ball of the semi-final of WBBL4 were her Thunder highlights and the reason why she plays cricket, said.
"You can obviously go straight to the negatives and worry about the things you can't do, like seeing your family.
"But we are part of something unique and that will never happen again.
"With us playing most days, we don't have time to dwell on bad performances - forcing us to put it behind us and get on with the next task at hand.
"The team that adapts to this best, not necessarily the best team, will be the most successful.
"Obviously it's an advantage for us that the games are being played in Sydney, as grounds most of us have played at a lot - which will give us a little bit more of the homely feel.
"I can't wait to get up there and try and help the girls take out BBL6."
Bates and fellow Thunder stars Jason Sangha, Liam Hatcher and Alex Ross also held an online forum for all players and volunteers in the Greater Illawarra Zone - which incorporates Shoalhaven, South Coast, Highlands and Cricket Illawarra.
If you'd like to sign-up for cricket this summer, visit here and find your local club team.