Oliver seizes his chance in Worcs victory
Worcestershire 138 for 5 (Oliver 77, Ali, 41) Northamptonshire 134 for 7 (Willey 34, Ali 2-23) by five wickets
If success in sport is all about taking opportunities, Richard Oliver should go on to enjoy a decent career in the game. A few weeks ago 24-year-old Oliver was focusing on captaining Shropshire in the Minor Counties Championship and pursuing a career in coaching but here he was blasting Worcestershire to victory over the defending T20 champions.
A less passionate, less stubborn fellow might have given up on a career as a player. But not Oliver. He has spent the last eight years as a professional in club cricket - the summers in England, the winters in Australia - and, as he put it "bashing the door down" in the hope of attracting a county.
Then, a few weeks ago, he won his break. Kevin Sharp, standing in as Worcestershire second XI coach for the unwell Damian D'Oliveira, phoned Oliver and invited him to play for the county's second XI. Sharp knew Oliver form his time coaching Shropshire and was a player short for a game.
Oliver responded by scoring two centuries for Worcestershire's second team against Derbyshire, one in limited-overs cricket and another in the longer form of the game, and then another against Lincolnshire in a limited-overs game for Shropshire.
With Gareth Andrew unavailable due to injury - he has a back problem that is expected to sideline him for another two-and-a-half weeks - it was enough to see Oliver selected ahead of the likes of contracted players such as Tom Fell and Joe Leach for Worcestershire's first T20 game of the season. Suddenly, from opening the batting with Omar Ali for Shropshire, Oliver was opening the batting with Omar's brother, Moeen, for Worcestershire.
It proved an inspired selection. He responded by top-scoring for his side with 43 from 31 balls against Durham and followed it with an innings of 34 from 23 balls against a Lancashire side including James Anderson. Indeed, Anderson was seen giving Oliver some of his infamous "advice" after taking some punishment.
Now Oliver, with 77 from 43 balls, has helped Worcestershire to victory over the reigning T20 Champions with almost six overs to spare. It was Northamptonshire's first loss in six T20 games and only their fourth in 16. But it was Worcestershire's sixth victory in their last seven completed Twenty20 matches against Northants, whose previous T20 defeat also came at the hands of Worcestershire and they will reflect that, after a modest display with the bat, their bowling was disappointing and their fielding sometimes quite wretched. It was an uncharacteristically poor performance.
The opening stand of 87 in 8.3 overs between Oliver and Moeen made sure of victory, but the seeds were sown much earlier. Worcestershire's bowlers had fought back from a poor start - they conceded 47 from the first four overs of the innings - to restrict Northants to a total perhaps 15 under par on a slightly tricky, tacky pitch.
While Chris Russell came back admirably from a wretched start - his first over cost 15; his next three just nine combined - as he demonstrated the value of his pace and a well-disguised slower-ball bouncer, it was Worcestershire's two main spinners that really applied the pressure.
Moeen and Saeed Ajmal conceded just 37 from their eight overs, taking three wickets in the process. While Ajmal's skills are well documented, it was interesting to see that Moeen's doosra had improved immeasurably over the last few weeks. While it is still fractionally slower than his normal off-break, he continues to work in the nets with Ajmal and is improving at a pace the England selectors may find hard to ignore. Here David Sales was lucky to survive his first delivery, a doosra that beat him comprehensively.
But it was Oliver, striking the ball cleanly and unafraid to hit over the top, who dominated. It was not slogging; he timed the ball sweetly and displayed a wide enough range of stroke to suggest he could go on to enjoy a sustained career at this level.
"I never gave up," he said after his match-winning performance. "I never closed the door on myself. I felt that, as long as I was bashing the door down in league cricket or for the minor counties, then I had a chance.
"I know I'm in an incredibly privileged position right now. Not many people get given this sort of chance and there is an element of 'right time, right place' about it. An injury to another player has given me a chance and I'm determined to take it.
"I'm on trial at the moment, but I do feel I've gone a long way to proving myself tonight. I'm going to keep going, though. I'm going to bang the door down and make it impossible for Worcestershire not to sign me. I'm loving this experience and I want to carry on being a part of it."
Oliver's short-term contract ends on June 14, by which time he hopes to have won a longer term deal. He plays for Reigate on Saturday in the Surrey Championship before reporting to The Oval on Sunday where he will be 12th man for Worcestershire. The contract offer is inevitable.
"He is very well liked at the club," Worcestershire's director of cricket, Steve Rhodes, said afterwards. "And you can't play like that without getting a go. He hasn't looked out of place at all at this level and he has contributed in three out of the four games he has played so far.
"This was a good scalp. Our opening batsmen were magnificent, but our bowlers also came back really well. It is an excellent win."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo