Since the BCCI started dope tests across all levels in India, six players have tested positive for using substances prohibited under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code. Half of them were handed bans by BCCI on Tuesday after their urine samples taken earlier this year during random tests came out positive.
One of the players to be penalised on Tuesday was Prithvi Shaw, who was banned for using a cough syrup which contained the banned terbutaline, the same substance India allrounder Yusuf Pathan and Punjab wicketkeeper Abhishek Gupta had also been banned for, for using in 2018.
So is this becoming a trend? Is the violation actually inadvertent as claimed by the players? To answer these questions, ESPNcricinfo spoke with Dr Abhijit Salvi, BCCI's anti-doping manager. Salvi joined the BCCI in 2012 and initially worked with Dr Vece Paes, who was the board's anti-doping manager till 2017. Salvi is quite literally the BCCI's anti-doping helpline as he is the only official in the department.
How well educated are the players about anti-doping at all levels?
The BCCI accepted the ICC's anti-doping code as per WADA standard in 2009. We did not carry out testing straightaway because the then BCCI president (N Srinivasan) wanted us to educate the players on anti-doping code before testing them. So in 2010, the anti-doping education programme was started. It was mandatory to all players, including the coaching and support staff.
The testing process started in 2012 with domestic cricket, even though in the IPL, it was being done since 2008. Among all the ICC member countries, India has been conducting the most number of tests and that can be verified from the annual data WADA releases every year.
Also during the off-season - between July and September - the board's anti-doping cell visits all the state associations and conducts workshops. We provide all the players, both men and women, senior and junior categories, an anti-doping pocket guide which contains a list of the prohibited substances, along with the process, what are their rights and responsibilities. The guide, which is in Hindi as well as English, is sent out every year after WADA updates the list of prohibited substances annually. The guide also contains the 24x7 helpline number where players can verify the medicine they are taking has a prohibited substance or not.
Is there an anti-doping programme at the state level?
No. The BCCI conducts the programme and oversees the process. Currently it is only me who travels across the country and also communicate directly to the players.
Can you tell us about terbutaline, which both Shaw and Yusuf took after buying over-the-counter cough syrups - how does it actually impact a cricketer?
Terbutaline helps to open the airways and thereby ventilate the lungs effectively. It may be beneficial to cyclists, runners, etc., but wouldn't really help a cricketer perform better.
People tend to think it is okay it is just a cough syrup, how can it contain a banned substance? And then make the mistake
In your report on Shaw, you mentioned that it was the first offence and he had only attended a few anti-doping lectures. Despite being just 19 years old, Shaw is an international cricketer. Shouldn't he have known better?
As I said, I try and explain to the players in each and every possible language, to the best way they can understand the importance of anti-doping programme. But at times you know some cricketers tend to overlook. Having said that, there are many junior and young players, who call me regularly from different parts of the country, even Under-16 and Under-14 at times. On a daily basis, I get 20-25 queries on the helpline.
I am sure Prithvi knew about BCCI having an anti-doping programme and the helpline. He attended at least three anti-doping education programmes with us. He might have even attended the ICC's programme conducted at the Under-19 World Cup in 2018. So he was well aware, but probably he just overlooked it and thought to himself "okay, the cough syrup shouldn't be that dangerous".
I keep telling the players even if it is paracetamol, which is not banned, even if it is a tablet for fever, call me. I won't be irritated. I am there to help you. But somewhere people tend to think it is okay it is just a cough syrup. How can it contain a banned substance? And then make the mistake.
What is interesting is that all the three players now and even others in the past, like Yusuf and Abhishek, took the banned substances inadvertently. And each of them went by the advice of a third party and not a medical professional assigned to their teams. Is that just an oversight on the part of the player? Or is the message you are trying to send out not getting through?
Earlier, people were casual and did not bother checking all the medicines they were consuming. Yusuf's case was an eye-opener for everyone. Other cricketers realised that they needed to be careful, too. That's when people who did not call earlier started checking their medicines regularly.
If you look at the number of cricketers at all age groups, men and women, in India, this is the first time three cases have come up. Earlier it was the one-odd case. That speaks for our education programme. Sheer number of people calling in, the number of people being aware are far more than the number of people testing positive.
In future, probably we could train more people who can communicate with the players in their local language because there could be cases where a person does not understand the message we are sending out in Hindi and English
Another key factor, which could be scary, is all these players have been picked randomly for the tests. Is it fair to assume that there could be several more cases of players consuming medicines or anything that might contain prohibited substances. How does one detect that?
True. All these three were picked randomly, but we also do target testing. It is not possible to test each and every player. Compared to other sports, cricket is a low-risk sport when it comes to doping - honestly, I don't feel there are many substances which will actually enhance a cricketer's performance. Terbutaline is not going to make someone a better cricketer. Cricket is a skill-based game and you still have to practice the skill to get better.
Other than Shaw, two other players, Akshay Dullarwar of Vidarbha and Divya Gajraj of Rajasthan took medicines that contained banned substances. All the three sought outside help for their ailments without seeking out the team's medical staff. Doesn't that seem odd?
After returning home to Rajasthan, the eye injury [Gajraj had] sustained in Kalyani [in Bengal] worsened, so he consulted an ophthalmologist who prescribed him a diuretic to reduce his raised intraocular pressure.
Okay, that is an exception. But Shaw and Dullarwar, they did violate the rule that they should not seek outside help and turn to you first?
Absolutely, that is the point we stress at all times. Even at home, your parent might get you a medicine or your local doctor might give something, but you have got to get it checked first.
And you believe their mistakes were innocent?
Absolutely. These were inadvertent mistakes. And I don't see how they were used for enhancing performance.
What is your message to players?
The message has always been clear and the same: they have to contact us before taking any medicine. It could be the simplest of medicines, but you should still check with the BCCI anti-doping helpline. The player can check even with the team's medical staff, but the BCCI's anti-doping cell is the best place to check at all times. Even when people call me for queries, I ask them to write to me so that I respond in writing that this medicine is not banned or otherwise, so they have that proof as well.
Is there a lesson in this for the BCCI too?
BCCI's planning and implementation of the anti-doping programme is already the best it can have. In future, probably we could train more people who can communicate with the players in their local language because there could be cases where a person does not understand the message we are sending out in Hindi and English. Also, going forward, we could do target testing and less of random tests because that is where the world of anti-doping is leading to.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo