Drugs in cricket December 6, 2006

Divergence in doping policies will not work

How can cricket operate with such a wide divergence in the doping policies of a national board and the body that runs cricket?



The ban and the subsequent reversal of it highlights dangerous neglect on the part of the PCB and team management in ensuring that players were constantly kept aware of doping issues © AFP

Laugh, cry, pull out hair, or applaud? It's difficult to know exactly what to do with the decision of the appellate committee to completely overturn the bans imposed on Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif by a previous tribunal.

Set aside details for a moment: the first broad message conveyed - possibly the most significant - is that two players who have tested positive for a banned substance have been let off without any punishment at all. Even granting them the benefit of doubt and acknowledging that there was no intent, nothing at all, not even a piddling fine or a slap on the wrists? For ignorance at least? What that says to young cricketers in Pakistan is frightening. The more cynical might extend it and argue that Shoaib Akhtar can have a suspect action, test positive for drugs and tamper with the ball (he's been caught twice and Sky TV caught him doing something suspicious with the ball in an ODI in England this summer) and still have an international career.

For Pakistanis who are celebrating this decision, they should first cast a sombre glance at the cases of Meherullah Lassi and Faisal Karim. They are possibly Pakistan's best boxers, among the region's cream as well, and they have just been handed life bans by the Pakistan Boxing Federation for testing positive for use of cannabis. The cases and circumstances differ but seen together, the message Pakistan sports sends out is inconsistent.

Now in the details, the messages are equally mixed. In effect, one committee has referred to international regulations, claimed ignorance is no excuse, and punished the players. Another committee subsequently claims that ignorance is an excuse and that local regulations should be applied, which duly exonerate the players.

Which of the committees was right? I admit I thought the first one had got the decision correct, firm but fair. But Intikhab Alam's comments a day after the decision, regarding Shoaib in particular and how he had to be made an example of for his lifestyle if nothing else, discredited his own verdict badly.

The second committee also has a point - this was an internal matter they argued and thus any judgment should have been based on internal codes. But one of the committee's members, Danish Zaheer, a medical expert, has expressed serious dissent with the judgment. As well as saying that the testing procedure was flawed, he also claims that the 'exceptional circumstances' (possible contamination of nutritional supplements used by the players with banned substances) by which the players were absolved were never authentically proved to the appellate committee. The supplements were never provided for analysis, as they have been in other cases where a drugs ban has been overturned, so how was a conclusion reached?

At least on one point both committees agreed and that is the failure of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) - not specific regimes but as a generic administration - in all this. For starters, the lawyers representing Shoaib have insisted that the PCB's anti-doping regulations are, to put it mildly, laughably flimsy, vague and completely out of sync with international codes. The deeper malaise is that they don't seem to have ever treated the issue of doping with any great seriousness. Both reports highlight dangerous neglect on the part of PCB officials and members of the team management in ensuring that players were constantly kept aware of doping issues. Neither the anti-doping officer (yes, there is one) nor the physiotherapist or the trainer has taken responsibility for dispensing information on doping; they have passed the buck and it hasn't stopped anywhere.

In all this, there is an uneasy question for the game as a whole: how can cricket operate with such a wide divergence in the doping policies of a national board and the body that runs cricket? It is a divergence wide enough for one set of rules to impose a harsh punishment and another to completely absolve them.

What happens, as one reader rightly asked, if the players test positive during the ICC World Cup now, knowing that nandrolone remains traceable in the bloodstream for a considerable period of time after it has been ingested?

Undoubtedly, the ICC and WADA will have their say over the next couple of days, but perhaps they should first reflect on the need to align cricket's policies as a whole and ensure that one code applies to all cricketers, as it does to athletes. What happens, as one reader rightly asked, if the players test positive during the ICC World Cup now, knowing that nandrolone remains traceable in the bloodstream for a considerable period of time after it has been ingested?

Indeed, is there any sense in only instituting dope tests during major events as they currently do? What is preventing them from instigating testing during bi-lateral series and tours, or for ODI tournaments not organized by the ICC? Is it not their duty to keep a tighter vigil on such issues?

Of course, the other lasting message that will resonate around the world is that the whole affair gives off the nasty odour of a PCB sham, from start to finish. People will not delve into details and legal lacunae in the two reports. They will simply see that two key players tested positive for substance abuse, were banned and then reinstated with crucial assignments on the horizon. In any language, that is a sham. Laugh, cry, pull out hair, or applaud? Do it all. In unison.

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Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo