Keith Barker is a sportsman well used to making big decisions in his life.
As a talented youngster it was ‘should he play football, or cricket?’
He chose professional football, first on the books of Blackburn Rovers, then on loan at Rochdale, in Belgium with Cercle Bruges, and Northwich Victoria.
Then, when he gave up football to play first-class cricket, it was ‘should he play for Warwickshire or his native Lancashire?’.
He chose the Bears.
Now, after eight increasingly successful years at Edgbaston, the last six of them as an automatic Bears first-team choice, the left-arm all-rounder could have another big decision to make. England or West Indies?
“I’ve been asked it a lot over the years,” Barker told BBC Sport. “Would I play for England or the West Indies? But nothing has been approached to me about it.”
At 29, it now looks increasingly clear that England are never going to consider him – despite a lot of plaudits on the back of an almost unrivalled haul of 257 wickets in 70 County Championship games since 2012.
But there is another option open to this Lancastrian son of a West Indian, whose godfather is the great Clive Lloyd.
Could he really play for the Windies?
“I’d be open to it obviously,” said Barker. “But it would be a possible lifestyle change. I’d probably have to up and move. I couldn’t just walk straight into the squad. You have to play so many games – and I’d have to perform in them too.
“I’ve no issue with not being selected by England. They might see me only as being a good county player and that’s fine as I never even thought I’d do that in the first place.
“I’m proud to have achieved what I have. I don’t want to look back thinking I could have done more. If I was to be given some sort of recognition internationally, it would have most likely happened by now. But. if that means I finish without ever playing at international level, I’d still be happy.”
The Barker family’s cricketing credentials
Keith Barker Sr played first-class cricket for his native British Guiana, in the early 1960s, sharing the same team as such West Indies greats Lloyd, Lance Gibbs, Basil Butcher, Clyde Walcott and Rohan Kanhai.
And, as a Lancastrian son of a West Indian, Keith Barker Jr he admits he was born to play cricket.
“I’m told I had a cricket bat in my hand before I could walk,” said Manchester-born Barker, who grew up in Accrington, while his father was professional at various nearby Lancashire League clubs, including Great Harwood, Enfield and Rishton.
“I was always playing with my brothers,” he recalls. “We used to play on the driveway when it was sunny, with a skateboard for stumps, leaned up against the garage door.
“I played my first Under-13s game at the age of six when one lad didn’t turn up, I trialled with Lancashire Under-11s at eight and, at one point, we had all four of us brothers playing for Enfield, in different teams.”
The Barker family’s cricketing roots go back even further. Of his three brothers, Garfield, or Gary for short, was named after the great Garfield Sobers, while Andy, whose middle name is Lance, was named in honour of Warwickshire and West Indies spin legend Gibbs.
As for Barker himself, he was given the same middle name Hubert as one of his father’s best friends, the great former Windies captain Lloyd who became his godfather.
Barker’s early cricket career
Having played for Lancashire through the age groups, he had a trial for England Under-15s, when Paul Farbrace, now England assistant coach, was involved, playing alongside Worcestershire and England all-rounder Moeen Ali and his future Bears captain Varun Chopra.
“I played with Chops from the age of 11 to 15, when we both played for England Under-15s. In fact, there were a few times when my mum and dad couldn’t make it and his mum and dad used to take me,” he said.
“But I kind of fell out of love at 15 with cricket, as to how it was structured. I was opening the bowling and batting three but I was told I couldn’t do that. Then when I did get an opportunity to prove myself I really messed up.
“I’d told the coach I wasn’t happy so he let me bat at four. We were playing the Netherlands. I’d always been brought up by my dad that a bad ball’s a bad ball whenever it comes. I got this big juicy full toss first ball. I was kind of feeling the pressure that I can’t fail as I’d made such a fuss about playing, But I pulled out halfway through and ended up being caught and bowled.
“Next game I was back to batting nine and second change again.”
Different ball game for Barker
Keith Barker’s first big problem in life was that, apart from loving cricket, he was pretty good at football too.
This lifelong Manchester United fan has played cricket against Joe Hart, shared the same football pitch as Vincent Kompany and, on some cold mornings, he can still feel the damage a slightly mistimed Lee Cattermole challenge once did to his ankle in his early days at Blackburn.
In his Rochdale days he played against four future Premier League players – Kasper Schmeichel (then at Bury), Mike Williamson (then at Wycombe), Dave Edwards (Shrewsbury) and Jon Walters, who was in the same Chester team as a future Premier League manager, Roberto Martinez.
But, just like with his cricket, his football career also kicked off.
“I remember when I was five my brother grabbing my taking me into living room, moving the coffee table to one side and telling me he was going to teach me the ‘step over’,” he said.
“I started playing for Huncoat United at nine. I played left wing when I was growing up, a left wing who never tracked back,” he grins. “But I was still scouted by Blackburn and I ended up signing a contract there.”
No Rovers return for Barker
Blackburn had two managers at the helm in his days at Ewood Park, first Graeme Souness, then Mark Hughes.
“He was a scary bloke Souness,” he recalls. “I remember the odd fiery training session. He certainly didn’t hold back in challenges.
“You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. I never saw any player cross him.”
But, while Barker still had a chance of making it under Souness, it was a different story when Hughes took over.
He explained: “Mark Hughes told me ‘You’re a decent player. But I’m always going to buy my strikers from abroad’.”
It led to Barker joining Blackburn’s feeder club Cercle Bruges for the 2005-06 season. “They only played 4-5-1, with one striker, which wasn’t me. I’d been there two months when I had a chat with the manager,” he added.
“He said ‘I’ve got to be honest with you, I didn’t want a striker’. I knew my time was up.”
He ended up doing well at Rochdale until manager Steve Parkin got sacked, was on trial north of the border at Scottish minnows Gretna when they were on the up and turned down a three-year deal at Royal Antwerp, Manchester United’s feeder club.
Five months with St Patrick’s Athletic in Ireland were largely spent injured, followed by a summer trial at Bury, only for their manager Chris Casper to get sacked too, in January 2008, after which his final footballing stop was Northwich Victoria.
“I pretty much gave up on football. You have to hit the ground running when on trial or signing for a new club. My nephew had the same when he was over from Australia on trial at Oldham. He played a one-off trial and trained for a few days with the Under-21s.
“He was told they’d be looking to sign him, only to then be told a week later that they’d managed to get the player on loan who they were after earlier in the season, so he wouldn’t be needed. He’s now back in Australia playing football.”
The switch back to cricket
When Barker signed his Blackburn deal, Lancashire also offered him a contract – three days too late.
“From 16 to 21, I didn’t play much cricket at all. Apart from Lancs calling me out of the blue to come and play in a game against Sri Lanka A when I was 18, I played for Enfield about 10 or 12 times.”
Then came a fateful day in late March 2008 – when his father died.
“I was 100% sure nothing would happen with cricket, so I was just looking for a job. But dad called (Lancashire Academy boss) John Stanworth to let him know I was coming back to cricket, just to do the right thing. It was the next afternoon my dad passed.
“I took 20 wickets in five games for Enfield, and was being watched Lancashire, then I got told (Warwickshire coach) Ashley Giles was looking for a left-armer and had spoken to David Lloyd, who I’ve known for a long time, as he’s been involved with Accrington all his life. I’d played with his youngest lad Ben, and Graham, his eldest son, also played for Accrington when he finished with Lancashire.
“Keith Piper watched me and offered me a trial. I scored 118 and that’s when Lancs took notice. An old family friend saw on Teletext a headline ‘Ex-footballer scores a hundred’ and questions started to be asked.
“John Stanworth took more interest in getting me to go up there and have a trial but I’d already been offered a contract by Warwickshire. And it was a two-year deal. Lancashire only offered a year. My mind was already made up and I felt a fresh start was a good thing.”
Eight years on, lots of wickets and lots of new friends made, and with two years left on his contract, how long before Barker thinks about another fresh start?
BBC Coventry Warwickshire’s Clive Eakin
If Keith Barker never gets a full international call-up, as now seems likely, he would surely feature prominently on lists of the best cricketers not to have played for England.
It’s his perceived lack of pace that has had successive selectors doubting his ability to step up to the elite level. That invites discussion as to whether England are too hung up on the importance of pace.
Barker, with his left-arm over, offers something different. And, once again, he’s proven in 2016 that he can take wickets with impressive regularity. He passed 50 for the season in the Championship, as well as scoring over 500 runs.
It’s no coincidence that the one bowler in the First Division to claim more victims has been his county colleague Jeetan Patel. Warwickshire make no secret of the way the New Zealand spinner exploits Barker’s footmarks.
Warwickshire are keen to protect Barker from wear and tear by using him rarely in white-ball cricket. It’s an understandable policy but the Bears would surely not have flopped so badly in Twenty20 if Barker had played more.
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/37363776