A generation ago, baseball imagined itself a skill-based game immune from doping risks, only to have a doping epidemic exposed in the early 2000s. The salient shifts in cricket in recent years - Twenty 20 encourages a greater emphasis on power hitting with the bat and athleticism in the field, and brings far greater financial rewards - mean that the threat from performance-enhancing drugs has never been higher.
“Cricket has become much more physically demanding in recent years, much more focused on power,” said Ivan Waddington, an anti-doping specialist from the University of Chester. “And there's more competitions and greater stress on the body. So the pressures are all in one direction, which is greater pressure for players to use drugs.”
The lack of co-ordinated testing creates scope for players to dope, both in the leagues where there is scant testing and away from tournaments. Then, they could return to play in major tournaments, when they would not fail a drugs test even if they had previously been doping.
Steroids, for instance, typically take a few weeks to pass out of an athlete's system, creating scope for players to use them between major competitions. Before a season, a batsman could use a course of steroids to “build up the shoulders and muscles in the arms” and would not need to take the drug when they returned to play to benefit from it, Waddington said.
For a bowler, meanwhile, human growth hormone could dramatically increase the amount of time it takes players to recover from certain injuries. With the amount of cash players can earn in leagues tied to their availability, returning to play earlier could have significant financial benefits for T20 players.
“With doping it's presumed that in-competition testing is only scratching the surface,” explained a medical official from a leading nation. “At a minimum you need really good out of competition testing. Certainly there's a washout period for everything so you can get a lot of advantage out of competition.”
Out of competition testing is the bedrock of successful testing programmes, Waddington pointed out. “Anyone who fails in competition testing has to be pretty stupid or pretty incompetent because you know when the date of competition is.”
Evidence from other sports shows that a low level of failed tests in competition is no indication of a lack of doping. At the Athletics World Championships in 2011, only 0.5 per cent of competitors failed tests. An anonymous survey found that 30 per cent of athletes admitted to using illegal drugs in the year before the competition. This all suggests that the six violations in cricket last year - of which four were for performance-enhancing drugs - are not a true gauge of the scope of drugs use.
Compared with other sports, “the number of violations in cricket looks relatively low,” said Paul Dimeo, author of The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport. He noted that about 0.4 per cent of cricketers had failed their tests in 2018, a quarter of the global average in sport. Dimeo said that the number of doping violations registered, “looks like an under-representation in comparison to what we know from other sources”.
While the ICC’s use of biological passports, which were launched in 2017, is welcome, Waddington suggested that this could even lead cricket to face a similar position to cycling, which annulled the Tour de France victories of a string of riders - most notoriously Lance Armstrong - after they were retrospectively found to have doped.
“One consequence of this may be that we say we don’t know who won the 2019 World Cup because those players were subsequently found to be on drugs so the results were annulled.”
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