Monday 19 July 2010

The drugs do work

Much is written about the potential damage to the game caused by the IPL, T20, full grounds and lots of money. Some of it may be true, although the future has a way of not doing what you think it will.

T20's big threat is the one no-one is writing about. I realised it again when I heard a county coach saying something along the lines of, all the young players he now had coming his way 'just want to get in the gym, bulk up and smack the ball miles'. It's entirely logical that they should, too.

Some of them will want it more than others, and some of them will do it with drugs. It's inevitable that cricket will have a steroid bust within a few years. It only needs to look at baseball - a close cousin in terms of the required skill sets - for a nightmare vision of the future. For a while baseball was like the wild west, guys getting jacked up and obliterating hitting records that had stood for decades with little fear of punishment or regulation. Ultimately it was only the opprobrium of the fans, who took exception to cherished records having asterisks placed next to them in the books, that ended the freakishness.

Sports like cycling, bodybuilding and athletics have been giant labs for steroid makers for years. The manufacturers and the suppliers and the coaches remain a distance ahead of the testers in terms of knowledge and ingenuity. There are, no doubt, new versions of drugs being used now that will not be detected for years. The last major bust - of Victor Conte's BALCO lab in San Francisco - did not come about from positive testing, but from a whistleblower. Otherwise, Conte, and by extension Marion Jones, Tim Montgomerie and Dwayne Chambers, might never have been caught. Cycling's regulators are now freezing samples for testing decades into the future, when they've finally worked out what they might be looking for.

The truth about steroids is that they work. That's why athletes take them. Applied with knowledge and care to the right dietary and training methods, they are low risk, high reward drugs.

Cricket has never had a problem, and so its culture is not prepared for one. It's a bit like a big house with its back door unlocked and the owners on holiday. The combination of financial reward, worldwide fame and a variant of the sport increasingly reliant on power mean that the drugs are coming. It had better get ready, like it or not.


Brit said...

A gloomy and all-too believable picture you paint this Tuesday morning, OB.

I suddenly realise I have no idea at all about how doping tests work in cricket. How lucky were they to catch Shoaib Akhtar and Asif? I suppose the temptation has been there for a while for fast bowlers but, until T20, much less so for batsmen. Makes you wonder...

Tim Newman said...

A mega-keen cyclist, runner, and triathlete who I once knew used to think the top professional tennis players must have been using something to sustain performances over such lengthy periods, but the establishment declined to ever suggest such as thing, let alone test for it. It might one day be discovered that cricketers have been using for some time, but in the wake of the gambling scandals nobody wanted to open that particular box.

David Barry said...

Tim, your friend is at least partially right - there were several tennis players involved in Operacion Puerto. No names, because the Spanish judiciary don't seem to want to act on the case (there are big football interests in Madrid and Barcelona who also have an interest in keeping things quiet). But there are certainly people speculating about which Spanish tennis players might be using blood doping to achieve very high levels of endurance....

Russ said...

According to Wikipedia, a number of tennis players have been done for Nandrolone (and Cocaine, but the tennis circuit is boring), notably Petr Korda, but the timing (late 90s) pre-dates modern doping methods. There isn't a sport, certainly not any Olympic sports, that don't test fairly often, though most probably lack the rigour of cycling, and are therefore relatively easy to manipulate, if the athlete is careful.

Incidentally, EPO (or whatever is popular these days) would probably do a lot for a bowler in test cricket, allowing them to bowl longer, faster spells. But given that until a few years ago, there had been almost no work done on reducing energy expenditure in the field, or maintaining hydration, I don't think cricket is at that point yet.

David Barry said...

Russ, what do you mean by 'modern doping methods'? EPO use in cycling (and cross-country skiing too, I think) took off in the early 90's.

Testing regimes are usually very easy to beat. Cyclists and their doctors work out the system very quickly - these days they do autologous blood transfusions (ie, take out their own blood, re-inject a month later). Apparently this would be detectable with the biological passport, so they combine the transfusions with microdoses of EPO to 'normalise' various blood parameters. The EPO injected in this way becomes undetectable within hours.

It doesn't help that some teams and riders get tip-offs about upcoming 'surprise' tests.

It is certainly true, though, that the blood passport means that cyclists can't dope as much as they used to. The Plan de Corones mountain time trial in this year's Giro d'Italia had times 1-2 minutes slower than a couple of years ago. (Lots of other variables go into that, but it's certainly suggestive of less doping.)

HGH is also basically undetectable.

Russ said...

DB, synthetic EPO has been detectable since the late 1990s (hence the blood transfusions), so by "modern" I mean whatever doping is being done now that can't be detected. I am sure there is still stuff going on in cycling, but it is less effective (hence the largely slower times, though Contador's tour times last year were far faster than you'd expect for a non-doper).

Having done quite a bit of cycling in the past two years, coming back to play cricket is a bit of a shock. Never mind doping, amateur cricket ignores even the most basic forms of hydration and energy maintenance. Given that kinaesthetic sense is one of the first things to decline when the body is under duress, having 3 drinks breaks in 5 hours of play is a bit insane.

(Interesting question of study on that issue too DB: given the body uses fat stores to replenish energy when required, can we find evidence that fat batsmen are more likely to play long innings?)

David Barry said...

by "modern" I mean whatever doping is being done now that can't be detected.

OK, fair enough.

I've never ridden competitively, but it doesn't surprise me that amateur cricket lags behind cycling in terms of energy/fluid maintenance. I don't think there's anything in cricket as obviously devastating as a hunger flat in cycling.

At the pro level, the 12th man brings out drinks at every fall of a wicket, even in the first over....

can we find evidence that fat batsmen are more likely to play long innings?

Ha! Well they might be over-represented in the set of batsmen who've scored 329 or more in a Test innings.

BottomOfThePyramid said...

Won't the new anti-doping regime help at all? The ICC recently entered into an agreement with the World Anti-Doping Agency to test a pool of top-ranked bowlers and batsmen.

Of course, this wasn't without its share of drama (on account of the IRTP 'disclosure of whereabouts' clause, the BCCI and Indian players).

Here's the link:,311137,EN.html

Meanwhile, I am falling asleep waiting for Murali to get to his 800th wicket!

The Old Batsman said...

Russ, I think you have a point - when you see sports that are at the cutting edge of sports science, legal or illegal, you see how far behind cricket is, and how innocent it is.

To a degree the WADA code doesn't work at first, because it just tests established players. Tendulkar and Ponting are unlikely to take anything, but a kid trying for a county contract or an IPL contract is far more vulnerable.

Bruce Charlton said...

I blogged about this recently - but you got there three years before me!