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Novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi

Haunted by virtue

A drug-testing regime as invasive as WADA's needs to be vigorously debated, and thanks to the opposition from India's cricketers maybe it will now be

Mukul Kesavan

August 10, 2009

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An anti-doping inspector stands next to the pitch during the 3. Liga match between Eintracht Braunschweig and VfL Osnabrueck, Braunschweig, Germany, July 25, 2009
Cricket isn't the only sport to have a problem with WADA's regime © Getty Images

The BCCI's quarrel with the World Anti Doping Agency sums up the way cricket has been disciplined by time. From timeless matches to the five-day Test, to the one-day international, to the compressed frenzy of the Twenty20 game, and now an anti-doping regime that makes cricketers account for their near future by the hour.

WADA requires athletes and sportsmen to submit a schedule for three months that specifies an hour each day when they can be randomly tested for drugs. The Indian players have objected, arguing that they play cricket nine months of the year and don't want their leisure time to be invaded by WADA. The other objection that's been tabled is that Indian cricketers in general, and men like MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar in particular, have security needs that could be infringed by rigid, shared schedules.

WADA has made it clear that there will be no exceptions made for cricket. Every other cricket team, despite reservations, has signed up to the anti-doping regime, but the BCCI has asked the ICC to reject WADA's demands and create a drug-testing regime custom-made for cricket. Randhir Singh, secretary general of the Olympic Council of Asia, has made a statement saying that he thinks the BCCI should fall in line, and his reasons are unexceptionable: why should cricketers expect special treatment when hugely paid athletes in most other sports abide by the same rules? Similarly India's sports minister, MS Gill, has urged the BCCI not to hold out for special treatment.

Gill and Singh and WADA have decent arguments to make, and what's more, some great names to back them up with. Tiger Woods is possibly the best-paid, most famous, sportsman in the world and he's strongly in favour of testing. "I think we should be proactive instead of reactive. I just think we should be ahead of it and keep our sport as pure as can be." Woods specifically said that he was happy to be tested anywhere, at any time, without notice. On the face of it, then, WADA's regime is a good thing and the BCCI and the Indian players are doing what they do best: being spoilt prima donnas, moaning and asking for special favours.

But it isn't quite as simple as that. Cricket isn't the only sport that has resisted WADA's increasingly stringent testing regimes. In March this year, football's two most powerful bodies, UEFA and FIFA, rejected WADA's new code and asked the organisation to reconsider its rules given the special nature of team sport. Football's administrators argued that there was a basic difference between the individual athlete who trained privately, on his own, and footballers who trained collectively six days a week and were easy to locate. Like the BCCI, they asked for an exemption for players for the off-season "…in order to respect their private lives".

Towards the end of April, WADA and FIFA were reported to have resolved their differences, with FIFA's president offering full compliance with WADA's regulations. FIFA's English affiliate couldn't have got the message because in early August the Guardian reported that the FA was successfully resisting WADA's plan to test its elite international players. UK Sport, acting on behalf of WADA, had settled for elite women players and junior players. FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter, was pressing for "high-risk categories", namely injured players, to be target-tested, not leading international players. This sounds remarkably as if FIFA and the English FA are asking for exemptions for their male internationals and offering their women, children and wounded as substitutes.

And it isn't only football: the administrators of team sports like basketball, ice hockey and volleyball have all asked for clarifications. The BCCI is a soft target: a recent opinion piece on Cricinfo mocked as nonsensical the BCCI's invocation of the Indian constitution's guarantee of privacy. It's useful to note that the BBC news site reported earlier this year that "[…] sixty-five Belgian sportspeople have launched a legal challenge claiming that the intrusive nature of the WADA code breaks European Union privacy laws". If Yuvraj Singh's objections to the WADA code seem ludicrous because he's widely seen as one of a bunch of indulged Indian cricketers, we might attend to Rafael Nadal's objection to the new code, or that of Andy Murray, who said : "[…] these new rules are so draconian that it makes it almost impossible to live a normal life". According to the BBC, "[…] the British Athletics Commission (BAC) chief executive warned that the tougher regulations meant a number of British athletes would retire if they missed two tests rather than risk the possibility of a ban and the subsequent suspicion if they were absent on a third occasion".

It's also important to understand that the sports administrators and players who object to the current testing regime aren't rejecting drug testing per se. In football 25,000 tests are carried out every year and 10 players, on an average, test positive annually. Blatter is asking for modifications to the new code that came into effect from the beginning of 2009. The problem is that the code was agreed in 2007 at a conference FIFA attended, which puts FIFA in roughly the same position as the BCCI: they're trying to renege on a code that they signed up for without reading the fine print.

Cricket does drug testing too. Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, nandrolone, and were suspended from cricket by the Pakistan Cricket Board. The problem is that the drug testing is done by national boards that are vulnerable to pressure. The treatment of Akhtar and Asif is a case in point: the first tribunal's suspension was set aside by a second tribunal, and the pair got away without serving a suspension. WADA was deeply unhappy and took its objection to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland with, interestingly, the blessing of the ICC, which said it wanted cricket cleansed of drug-taking, but the action came to nothing because the court declared that it didn't have jurisdiction over the PCB. But WADA was vindicated by the fact that the PCB's leniency encouraged Asif to err again: he tested positive in 2008 and is currently serving a year's ban.

What if someone invents a performance-enhancing drug that vanishes from scientific view in, say, 12 hours? A player could avoid detection by taking it 12 hours before the snoops are due. Going by the logic of WADA's testing regimen, players will then be required to set aside testing slots at eight-hourly intervals to forestall cheating. That way lies madness

Abhinav Bindra, India's only Olympic gold medalist, said in an interview last week that WADA's regime was easy to follow. He had declared himself available at home between seven and eight every morning because he was generally at home during then and, he added disarmingly, it was the time of day when it was easy produce a urine sample. When there was a change in his daily schedule, he logged in to the WADA site and entered the details of the change and specified an hour when he'd be available.

I'm not sure Bindra's testimony will change many minds in the Indian cricket team. This is partly because the rhythms of his stock-still sport have about as much to do with a cricketer's routines as a tree's habits have to do with a cheetah's daily round. Also, someone like Virender Sehwag or Ishant Sharma probably thinks of Bindra as a bespectacled nerd who likes fiddling with computers and tinkering with schedules.

It's wrong to generalise, but I think the reason Indian players are holding out when every other cricket-playing country has fallen in line has nothing to do with being perverse or arrogant: they're genuinely appalled by the thought that they have to schedule their lives three months in advance. Indians don't do schedules well: they don't plan their holidays a year in advance, they don't write their appointments down in a diary, they don't think it's wrong to default on a deadline, and if the art of the last minute was an Olympic sport you'd only see Indians on the medals podium.

Mithali Raj, the Indian batswoman (I'd say "batsperson" if it didn't suggest an ungendered vampire) had the most succinct take on this Indian view of the world. "During competitions, you are in one place and know your itinerary. When you are at home, you don't know about the next three hours, forget about three months… We plan things spontaneously, be it a movie or a dinner."

So while I'm convinced that cricket needs drug testing (specially in the IPL epoch, when the monetary pressure on cricketers to recover from injury is enormous), it isn't clear to me that WADA's new Big Brother regime is the only way to go. It's certainly wholly contrary to the Indian instinct to extemporise leisure. But this is bigger than the Indian players, the BCCI or the ICC or cricket. A code that makes your professional livelihood contingent on ambush testing the year round, seriously threatens a player's privacy.

The rationale for a player making himself available every day at a particular time is that there are sophisticated drugs that don't show up after a day. WADA can't give the athlete even a day's notice for fear that he might time his intake so that the drug's effects wear off before the appointed hour. But what if someone invents a performance-enhancing drug that vanishes from scientific view in, say, 12 hours? A player could avoid detection by taking it 12 hours before the snoops are due. Going by the logic of WADA's testing regimen, players will then be required to set aside testing slots at eight-hourly intervals to forestall cheating. That way lies madness: a sporting life organised around and haunted by inquisitorial ghosts.

The sporting world may well come to the conclusion that this imposition is worthwhile if it delivers credible, drug-free competition, but a code as invasive as this one needs to be publicly and vigorously debated. To those who ask with elaborate irony, how it comes to pass that only India's cricketers have made a stand, the short answer is that they have because they can. The BCCI's enormous financial clout, the fact that cricket has nearly nothing to do with international sporting bodies like the IOC (and can't therefore be stampeded into acquiescence by the threat of being banned from the Olympics) gives them the leeway, the breathing space, to argue this case. Instead of sneering at Tendulkar and Co we ought to thank them for initiating this conversation.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi

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Posted by wanderer1 on (August 13, 2009, 17:06 GMT)

Maybe the pampered Indian players would do better to stop focusing on the money, (which let's be honest is what it's all about), and more on Cricket. Money comes and goes, just look at the western world and their dire economic situation, bankrupted by their own arrogance and freedom fighters. Concentrate on cricket or you may find yourselves without a good sporting team nor money.

Posted by aryaman1994 on (August 13, 2009, 6:46 GMT)

Wonderful article. I completely agree with you. I think the reason only Indian cricketers are complaining is because they play the most cricket. After being on the road for nearly all of nine months, the least you want is a little peace in the remaining months. How can a player know where he where he will be for each day of the next 3 months? It would be much better if the testers could contact the players one day before they want to conduct the test and ask them when and where they can be tested. If not 1 day then maybe 1 week. But there's no way a plater can be expected to specify where he will be for each day of the next three months.

Posted by mkesavan on (August 12, 2009, 2:08 GMT)

moronosaurus, we can debate this but you do need to read the piece first. 1. " fail to mention that the schedule... can be altered online at short notice." "When there was a change in his (Bindra's) daily schedule, he logged in to the WADA site and entered the details of the change." 2. "You fail to mention the benefits and temptations for fatigued cricketers to use drugs." "I'm convinced that cricket needs drug testing (specially in the IPL epoch, when the monetary pressure on cricketers to recover from injury is enormous)" 3. "You misrepresent the capitulation by FIFA to WADA as a 'deal'." I summarize the Guardian's report on this: Try not to allow the money Dhoni and Yuvraj make to get in the way of thought. Even if they weren't 'overpaid' there'd still be an issue to attend to.

Posted by dacha on (August 12, 2009, 1:04 GMT)

There is only one justifiable reason for Indian players to not be avaiable under the current conditions and that is safety, all the rest concerning culture are simply too close to racism. Cricket is neither a unique or special case, nor are cricketers somehow more precious than the rest of the sporting community. Remember the example of baseball. Surely the following "The BCCI's enormous financial clout, the fact that cricket has nearly nothing to do with international sporting bodies like the IOC (and can't therefore be stampeded into acquiescence by the threat of being banned from the Olympics) gives them the leeway, the breathing space, to argue this case." gives the game away. The BCCI's position has nothing to do with what is right for cricket, their own cricketer's, or the sporting community in general. Their just flexing their muscle and putting a bit of stick about the rest of the world be damned. Neo colonialism at it's very worst.

Posted by majeeak on (August 11, 2009, 23:23 GMT)

It is disappointing that our legends refused to take part in WADA requirements. As a responsible player and representative of our great nation, they are obliged to represent INDIA drug free. If they cant do that... please retire from sports and let the new drug free players to play for the country.... Supporting these players are equal to support use of drugs in cricket... as we had already similar bad name in match fixing.

Posted by r1m2 on (August 11, 2009, 22:43 GMT)

Thanks Mukul for writing this great article to shed some light on reality. I was amazed to see the Cricinfo poll result related to this, where majority of votes went in support of the WADA rule. I'd like to see them put in these athletes' shoes, and see how far they go. I think the security concern itself is not just for Dhoni or Tendulkar. If I had to let a certain body be aware of my whereabouts for every single hour in a day, I would quit that profession without another moment of thought. I know these athletes are not going to do that, so all the power to them to fight this out. I admit that I'd gotten so used to blaming BCCI for everything that when this came to light I was a bit shocked at my reaction. On one hand I felt my conscience forcing me to side with the cricketers and BCCI, on the other, it's BCCI, they're wrong. But what's wrong is wrong, invasion of privacy to this massive scale is wrong, sick and perverted. WADA just needs to pay their "analysts", so why'd they care?

Posted by cric4india on (August 11, 2009, 20:47 GMT)

Isolated occasion of sense prevailing talk in more than 2 weeks, Mukul! It is worth acknowledging you could see through the matter unlike the thousands who lick the surface off the cream and make known their verdict. The last 4-5 lines command respect for the fact you could see the other side of things like as to why the BCCI and the Indian players are opposing WADA clause unlike others who merely see it as snobbery. Just two words, Thank you!

Posted by jayray999 on (August 11, 2009, 19:03 GMT)

The Telegraph on 19 Feb 2009 reported "Sixteen world and Olympic rowing medallists have published an open letter branding the World Anti-Doping Agency's new 'whereabouts' rule changes "an impractical and unworkable regime." In their open letter the athletes write, "We spend our days panicking; having to always think about when our nominated hour is on that day, any upcoming changes of plans, if there's any chance recently that we've missed a test. We absolutely support both no-notice testing and strict sanctions; what we object to is this impractical and unworkable regime. There are far better ways of catching doping cheats than this." So are these athletes Indian stooges? Are they shills for the BCCI? Check out the full text of the letter:

Posted by oldmanofsea on (August 11, 2009, 17:54 GMT)

One of the most sensible article on the issue. I fully support the Indian cricketers on this issue. The solution to sophisticted drugs is not the arbitrary and ridiculous whereabouts clause. The solution is sophisticated drug testing techniques. Of course, the drug manufacturers will always be ahead of drug testing research. So, make the penalty of being caught severe. A drug that is sophisticated today will not be so 1 or 2 years from now. So, even if an athelete's sample is found positive at a later date, punish him/her severely. Retracting medals and awards may not be enough. 1 or 2 year bans may not be enough. Sometthing like a minimum of 2 years imprisonment might do the trick in dissuading players from using performance enhancing drugs.

Posted by moronosaurus on (August 11, 2009, 15:59 GMT)

Mukul Kesavan, Apologist Extraordinaire... you fail to mention that the schedule that needs to be handed three months in advance is a provisional one and that it can be altered online at short notice. You fail to mention the benefits and temptations for fatigued cricketers to use drugs. You misrepresent the capitulation by FIFA to WADA as a 'deal'. You place the needs of (overpaid) individuals above the good of the sport. You bring up vacuous points about privacy and security - if Dhoni and Yuvraj can tell their security people where they are every day, then surely they can tell the WADA folks the same thing. But ... you know what? I don't know why I care. You are merely a writer, and not a responsible sports journalist, which means you have to pander to your audience. Well done. Why don't you plug your latest book while you're at it? (And yes, I know the BCCI will win and drag cricket off the world stage.)

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Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.

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