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Farewell Lenny Kirton; tribute to ex-Harvard coach who once mentored Lara

“[Brian] Lara describes himself as ‘grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from Lenny Kirton,’ whom he remembers as ‘a good man’ but ‘very hard to please’. It was, he says, the coach’s way of ensuring that the talented teenager ‘keep a level head, be humble and keep working on my game’…”

Former Guardian sports editor, Valentino Singh, pays tribute to a mentor who has helped nurture some of Trinidad and Tobago’s best young cricketers:

Photo: Late former Harvard coach Lenny Kirton.

Leonard Kirton, who spent much of his adult life coaching cricket and football at Harvard Club, was a very private man. So it seems like some kind of poetic justice that he would have departed for the Great Beyond early Thursday evening at a time when Covid-19 is driving the society into enforced privacy.

In keeping with the requirements of the pandemic currently sweeping the country and the world, no more than five persons will be allowed to congregate to bid him a final farewell. But had he had to script it, I imagine that he would have asked for no more.

The 82-year-old Kirton, fondly known to his many friends as ‘Lenny,’ earned tremendous respect and affection, from hundreds of young men whose lives he touched. And because as a coach he had inevitably to interact with thousands of cricket people, young and old—including Brian Lara—with whom he came into contact, ‘Coach Lenny’s’ life, though far from an open book, simply was not nearly as private as he would have liked.

Lara describes himself as ‘grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from Lenny Kirton,’ whom he remembers as ‘a good man’ but ‘very hard to please’. It was, he says, the coach’s way of ensuring that the talented teenager ‘keep a level head, be humble and keep working on my game’.

“Coach,” he boasted to Kirton one day when he was still in the Clinic, “I got 50 today.”

“That’s not,” came the sobering reply, “a lot of runs.”

Photo: West Indian batsman Brian Lara kisses the ground after his record breaking 385 against England in Antigua on 12 April 2004.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Alessandro Abbonizio)

One can only wonder if Kirton remembered that exchange on those unforgettable mid-April days ten years apart when the Prince of Post-of-Spain first claimed and then reclaimed the world record. I never heard it mentioned on the rare occasions when he opened up to talk about his playing and coaching days.

He was, we knew, from Belmont, and had attended QRC before landing a job in the Public Service. He had represented the College at cricket, was not the greatest of wicketkeepers and loved to flick to leg when at the crease—hardly ever, he joked, for a long time.

After his school days were over, he returned to assist with coaching both the cricket and football teams. When his association with QRC ended in the late 1960s, he turned his attention full-time to Harvard.

I certainly remember the days when I was finally a consistent member of the club’s senior team. Coach would lead a group of staunch Harvard supporters to the Savannah, where he and club legends like the late Carlton Dore, Hugo Day, Pat Massy, Arnold Soodeen, Ewart Boisselle, Gerry Bowen and Robert Valentine would sit around with well-packed coolers and cheer us on.

You were almost guaranteed to see him almost every day during the week at the club, where over the years he served in various capacities, from sports supervisor to chairman of the cricket committee, from chairman of the Cricket Clinic to Clinic head coach.

It is the Clinic, in fact, that provides my fondest memory.

Photo: Harvard cricket club legends Lenny Kirton (left) and Gerry Bowen.

In my mind’s eye, I see him still, standing behind the Harvard nets, arms folded across his chest, eyes staring down the wicket, as I, a 14-year-old wannabe number three batsman, prepared to face another delivery.

And I can still hear him calling my name one sun-drenched evening when I had played probably the best square-cut of my life—off the second delivery of my innings!

Even I had been in awe as the ball raced to the boundary. FOUR! Not a man move! And, attempting to repeat the shot off the following ball, I was dismissed.
.
“Singh,” he bellowed in the post-mortem, “what time of the year is it?”

I murmured something non-committal, not sure where he was going. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

“Cane not ready for CUTTING until you get the right tools, the timing and conditions,” he said, slowly, letting the words sink in and making all my teammates snicker. “You think you had them after one ball?”

How could I ever forget? The message was clear: cricket, like life, is played above the shoulders, the head complementing the hands and feet. That was but one of scores of lessons and messages that helped shape me and eventually deservedly converted my tormenter into my mentor.

It was, I came to know, a role that he enjoyed and loved, comfortable with the responsibility, seeking no reward other than that we, Keno Mason, Lester Cassimy, Waaz Hosein, scores of others, would make something of ourselves on and off the field.

Photo: West Indies cricket legend Brian Lara (centre) is mobbed by fans during his historic stint with English County Cricket team, Warwickshire.
(Copyright BBC)

Part of our development as young cricketers involved attending, at Coach’s expense, territorial and international matches at the Queen’s Park Oval and discussing the on-field tactics, particularly over the lunch he also provided. We also had access to his expensive-looking binoculars and sometimes to his Pentax camera, with which he photographed all of us, his children, when the Clinic was on tour.

Mason, who captained QRC and the T&T Youth Team and also represented Trinidad and Tobago at senior level, identified Kirton as ‘my first official coach (who) I daresay taught me so much’.

Calling him ‘a master tactician and a shrewd man,’ he cited his obvious passion for cricket. “More importantly,” he added, “he was always seeking to improve the person.”

Cassimy, who captained the Clinic on tour to Barbados in 1973, concurs, confirming the special relationship he and others shared with Kirton.

“He was a father to me and to several other members of that team. Those were special times and many of us were from homes that were socially challenged. Coach picked up on that very early. He knew who had problems at home, who needed help and he used his contacts and resources to assist us.”

According to Cassimy, ‘hundreds of others’ benefited from Kirton’s interventions—his coming in the form of a scholarship to go to St Anthony’s College.

Photo: Late Harvard cricket coach Lenny Kirton (left) and iconic calypsonian and Road March master Aldwyn ‘Lord Kitchener’ Roberts.

“That opportunity taught me the value of education. And today I look back on that chance and can boast that it impacted my life in ways that are unimaginable.”

Cassimy went on to captain the T&T national youth team at the Regional Championships in Jamaica in 1975.

Unsurprisingly, Cassimy, Hosein and Mason have already begun to discuss plans for a: “very public post-Covid tribute to our beloved Coach whom God has chosen to call home at this time…”

…whether he approves or not!

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