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On 8 September 1998, Mark McGwire of the St Louis Cardinals struck a pitch from Steve Trachsel over the left field wall of the Busch stadium and broke one of American sport's most cherished records, most home runs in a single season. The mark belonged to Roger Maris and had stood for 37 years, and before Maris broke it in 1961, for 34 years. Amazingly, in that same 1998 season, another slugger, Sammy Sosa, also went past Maris' record and finished with 66 home runs to McGwire's 70. Sosa bettered Maris' 61 homers in two of the next three seasons, and then, in 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73, beating McGwire.
In 2010, Mark McGwire admitted the use of steroids throughout his career. Barry Bonds was implicated in the BALCO scandal of 2003, and in 2009, the New York Times reported that Sammy Sosa was on a list of players who had failed a test for performance enhancing drugs in 2003. Bonds and Sosa deny the allegations. Despite their eligibility, McGwire, Bonds and Sosa are yet to be elected into the sport's Hall Of Fame. The records of McGwire and Bonds appear in the annals of the game with an asterisk next to them.
It may seem odd to begin a column on cricket and Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) with a story about baseball, but the sports are kissing cousins and there is a tendency when discussing the subject to imagine that there's always another game that has it worse. In the case of cricket, it's true too. It has avoided the damning exposures of baseball, running and cycling, but that means nothing as the future comes rushing towards it.
From other sports the news is clear: PEDs fill the gap where opportunity exceeds risk and rewards exceed cost. Cricket is in a classically vulnerable position. There is no real history of drug use, meaning lots of people don't think it will happen. There are large amounts of money available to individual players. The governorship of the sport is shifting. And there is a new form of the game that will increasingly come to rely for its drama on one of the things that PEDs can be guaranteed to deliver - explosive power.
Twenty20 cricket is ten years old. If a TV company was to show a fixture from that first season in England it would probably look as alien as a Test match from the 1980s. A game from 2003 is hard to imagine, because the format has evolved exotically and in directions that have been impossible to predict - there are not many who foresaw a right-handed batsman hitting the ball left-handed into the stands, or scooping a 90mph delivery narrowly past his teeth. The certainties are that very fast bowling and power hitting will remain saleable, and that some of the specialists capable of providing them will operate as freelance contractors.
There is a general lack of understanding of what PEDs can do, even for a sport that is more dependent on fine motor skills than strength or endurance. A few years ago, I wrote a book about bodybuilders, men who took part in perhaps the wildest and weirdest sport in the world. Part of the reason that I wanted to write it was that bodybuilding answered a question that was often asked when drugs were discussed: what would happen if competitors were allowed to take whatever they wanted? Well, bodybuilding was the answer, and that answer was quite extraordinary. It was summed up best by Steve Michalik, one of the most notorious bodybuilders of all time. After narrowly surviving his preparations for a competition called Night Of Champions, Michalik memorably said that his final ambition had been to drop dead on stage: "I knew it was all over for me. Every system in my body was shot. My testicles had shrunk to the size of cocktail peanuts. It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first."
At the time I was writing, the most famous bodybuilder of them all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the governor of California, his life founded upon his body. Between Arnie's era of pumping iron, when he'd weighed in competition about 220lbs, and the present day, champion bodybuilders had refined their diets and training and drug regimes to such an extent that they weighed around 270lbs; that was 50lbs of extra muscle in less than 30 years. Fifty pounds of muscle on men who were already giants. This was what untrammelled, scientific application of performance enhancing drugs could do.
This might all seem distant and disconnected from cricket, but bodybuilding had ties to one of the biggest drug busts of them all, at Victor Conte's Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) lab, that led to the imprisonment of sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery and accusations that the use of steroids and human growth hormone was widespread throughout American sport. It led indirectly to the Mitchell Report, published in 2007, that named 89 current and former Major League baseball players as implicated in PED use.
PEDs did not create Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds. They cannot produce the fluke genetic combo of hand and eye that enables them to hit a fastball 100 yards with a rounded bat any more than they could help a club cricketer strike Shaun Tait back over his head. But what they could offer were fine margins of improvement, the strength to muscle the ball further or faster more often, to train harder and longer, to recover more quickly, to strengthen against injury, to take the edge off of travel and jetlag.
The 'war' against drugs is a dirty war, in which only one side must fight fair. Testing for them is highly specific, and usually once a test exists, the substances have shifted on, changed shape. The steroid generation of the 90s has given way to the Human Growth Hormone generation of the noughties, which in turn will yield to genetic modification that will open an entirely new moral argument.
Testing is a practice that feels good and gives the impression of action, but it often doesn't work. The two most famous busts of recent years, BALCO and Lance Armstrong, did not come from testing but from whistleblowers. An anonymous source submitted to the authorities BALCO's previously undetectable steroid known as 'The Clear', and Armstrong was brought down by the weight of testimony from his team-mates (albeit some of whom had failed tests). The common thread was that bodybuilding, baseball, sprinting and distance cycling had powerful inward cultures created for the purpose of taking PEDs, and those cultures sheltered their activities.
It's important that cricket, with its franchise teams springing up and its players flying everywhere, does not allow one to embed itself in those cracks during these quiet and unsuspecting years.
There is one reliable potential indicator, and that is performance. McGwire, Sosa and Bonds repeatedly broke longstanding records. In the most notorious 100m race in history, the Olympic final in Seoul in 1988, when six of the eight finalists were later implicated in doping, Ben Johnson's winning time of 9.79 took another 11 years to be equalled by a clean athlete (we should note here good physiological reasons for Usain Bolt lowering the record by similar margins more recently).
If cricketers emerge who can push the equivalent parameters of performance, bowling consistently at 100mph for example, or regularly striking at a rate of 200, history shows that they are worthy of caution, if not outright suspicion.
Another giveaway is in the people who surround the game. Anyone can swallow a tablet, but PEDs only really work when applied with specialist medical knowledge, and when combined with suitable genetics, diet and training. Cricket does not have its Victor Conte or Michele Ferrari, at least not yet. The current government investigation into drug use in Australian sport, and the World Anti-Doping Agency's announcement that doping is now 'too big' for them to manage, suggest wider corruption and links to organised crime and match-fixing. Well cricket knows all about that already.
The opportunities offered by PEDs invite the darker aspects of human nature. Sport attracts extreme characters, so its extremities should never surprise us. As T20 cricket muscles forwards with its players bursting out of their tight-fit shirts, it will not do to be complacent. We can live without asterisks in Wisden.