ICC has to take the lead

The ICC has been late in joining the rest of the sports family in signing the WADA Code. It did so only in July this year though there had been dope control in a few of its events beginning 2002. It should not relax now, writes K. P. MOHAN.

Cricket, they say, is a gentleman's game. That's what they have been saying for decades of golf, too. And yet, golf topped, percentage-wise, a list of dope offenders that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released last year. Of the 240 urine samples tested of golfers in accredited laboratories around the world in 2003, four turned out to be positive, a very negligible number you might say, though at 1.67 per cent it headed the list of sports that were major offenders. Baseball (1.24) followed. Athletics (0.64), weightlifting (0.50) and cycling (0.49), the three sports that routinely hit the headlines for doping scandals, came at a `respectable' sixth, ninth and 10th respectively in that chart.

But cricket? "Why not?" will be the counter after the latest turmoil that Pakistan cricket has been plunged into following the revelation on October 16 that the fearsome pace bowler Shoaib Akhtar, all muscle and aggro, and his partner Mohammad Asif, leaner but deadly, had returned positive tests for steroid nandrolone in a domestic dope control ordered by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).

It is not that doping is alien to cricket. Australian Shane Warne had tested `positive' for diuretics, which help shed fluids from the body as well as mask steroid use, in 2003 just before the World Cup began in South Africa and was sent home. He then served a one-year suspension. Before him there were several other first-class cricketers, who were involved in drug use, but mostly recreational drugs like cocaine and marijuana.

Akhtar and Asif, however, represent the first major `catch' among international cricketers for steroid use. They won't be the last if the International Cricket Council (ICC) and its constituent units press forward with their anti-doping plans, well aware now that the problem exists in their sport.

"Traditionally cricket has been regarded as a low risk sport when it comes to the subject of drug use but that does not mean we can be or are complacent in any way," said the ICC CEO, Malcolm Speed, in Jaipur as the doping story spread across India on the eve of Pakistan's Champions Trophy opener against Sri Lanka.

Hours earlier, coach Bob Woolmer and captain Younis Khan had faced an awkward time in front of the media, answering questions about the disaster that had befallen their team with Akhtar, who has apparently been in the suspect list for some time, and Asif being recalled. Not long ago, Pakistan was in the midst of another controversy at the Oval when the team was accused of ball tampering, a charge that was thrown out later.

Given the scenario, Woolmer's plan to have out-of-competition tests on the players before the Champions Trophy made little sense. Needless to say, his timing was dreadful. "This is the first time that drug testing has been officially instituted by the ICC. So we thought we will pre-empt that," said Woolmer.

Pre-empt? Was Pakistan trying to pre-empt in an effort to avoid embarrassment on a big stage or to help prospective offenders get milder punishment? The question gains credence when one analyses the later statements of many people involved.

Said Dr. Tauseef Razzak, Akhtar's personal physician on a television programme: "Shoaib was the first one to give his sample. If he knew that he had the dope, he would not have gone for the tournament because if the ICC had got him, he would have been gone for two years." (Later reports mentioned that Akhtar was most reluctant to provide his urine sample.)

Obviously, Dr. Razzak felt that Akhtar would receive a lesser sanction at home. That is what almost every former Pakistani cricketer had been hinting at ever since the story broke. In his anxiety to pass the buck, Mr. Speed also quickly put the ball in the PCB's court.

"There's nothing in the ICC's anti-doping policy that states that we can come in there but probably WADA can come in," said Mr. Speed. The ICC CEO was surely unaware of his own federation's rules. If the charges are proved, both the ICC and WADA can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in case they felt that the sanctions were not satisfactory.

No one knows what the PCB anti-doping rules are. Mr. Speed presumed it would be on the lines of the ICC since PCB endorsed the WADA protocol. Going by the ICC rules, Akhtar and Asif, though both have denied taking any banned drug knowingly, face two-year suspensions if the hearing panel finds them guilty.

More than the enormity of the situation, what stood out in the initial period after the doping revelation was the complete lack of understanding of the rules and regulations on the part of the ICC and the PCB.

To begin with, PCB should not have made public the results of the `A'sample tests done in the WADA-accredited laboratory in Penang, Malaysia, even before the cricketers were called to ascertain whether they wanted the `B' samples to be tested or not. It is another matter it might have been under pressure after the news `leaked'.

The PCB gave the impression on the first day itself that the `B' sample tests had also come back positive. Three days later, Asif sought his `B' sample test. By then the PCB had constituted a hearing panel. The process should have been the other way round. There is no recorded `negative' from a nandrolone `B' sample in anti-doping testing history. Yet, the fiasco that the Marion Jones doping case turned out to be after her `B' sample came back negative for EPO, should have made the authorities cautious about public disclosure before a `B' test.

Both the PCB and the ICC were rather lackadaisical. Nandrolone has an interesting history that dates back to the 1980s. A close `cousin' of the male hormone testosterone, the steroid is widely preferred by sportspersons across the globe, perhaps because it gives the least side effects, is cheap compared to many similar steroids, and if used in tablet or capsule form can be got rid of from the body fluids in days, depending on the dosage. The injection form, Deca-Durabolin, to mention its brand name, lasts longer in the body, sometimes beyond 10 months. In the late 1990s when there was a spurt in nandrolone positives, several prominent athletes including Britain's Linford Christie and Cuban Javier Sotomayor, footballers Edgar Davids and Frank de Boer of Holland and Christophe Dugarry of France, and Czech tennis star Petr Korda were found to have used the drug.

Anabolic steroids add muscle mass, increase strength and provide explosive power. They also help train harder and longer. The role of nandrolone, which is produced in very small quantities in the human body, in recovery from injuries has not been clearly established, though an expert like Britain's Prof. Ron Maughan is on record that it does help through the quicker rebuilding of muscles.

From the 1990s through to this day supplements, a great variety of which are available in the Indian market, had been blamed for most of the nandrolone positives. Supplements are often contaminated but the athletes are supposed to know what gets into their bodies. The policy of `strict liability' that WADA adopts has prevented athletes from getting away.

However, efforts are often made to escape punishment, sometimes alleging that someone had spiked a drink, at other times pleading that "my doctor gave it" (or "my mum gave it" as in the Warne case) or still other times simply saying "I didn't know". These arguments have little value in the anti-doping domain.

Money and fame have driven sportsmen towards drugs that aid them in performance. It is difficult to imagine cricket has joined the growing list of sports that has a doping problem. "In cricket, if at all someone gains out of steroids it could be the pace bowler, for, he requires the speed and strength" says Dr. P. S. M. Chandran, Director, Sports Medicine, Sports Authority of India (SAI).

One should not, at the same time, overlook the fact that both Akhtar and Asif were coming back from injuries. They would have been prescribed a cocktail of medicines and Akhtar is reported to have taken some herbal medicines, too, from a `hakim'.

There is no room for ignorance in modern-day sport. If an argument is trotted out that cricketers from poor background would hardly ever understand the implications of banned medicines, can you imagine the plight of the wrestlers, weightlifters and kabaddi players?

The ICC has been late in joining the rest of the sports family in signing the WADA Code. It did so only in July this year though there had been dope control in a few of its events beginning 2002. It should not relax now, comfort in the thought that it has introduced a dope control programme in all its events. Out-of-competition testing is the key.

"You must appreciate the fact that the PCB was the first to have an anti-doping policy. The PCB has been very strict in this matter because there is a need to make the players aware of the banned substances. You can't hide behind ignorance," says former Test cricketer Rameez Raja, also a former CEO of PCB.

Five of the full members of the ICC, England, Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand and South Africa have anti-doping policies; West Indies will join them soon. What about India? The BCCI is yet to get down to it. For a cash-rich body like the BCCI, the money spent on sending 100 samples abroad every year for testing in accredited laboratories would be peanuts.

"It is time the Indian Board had an anti-drug policy. No one is suggesting Indians may be tempted but it is important they know what is good and what is not. I would like the players, so professional in all matters related to cricket, to be aware of the banned substances," says former Test star Sanjay Manjrekar.

"There should be a uniform anti-doping policy and all cricket boards should adopt it," was how Ravi Shastri, former Test all-rounder, responded to the developing situation. The ICC has to take the lead.