October 19, 2006

Zero tolerance should not turn to hero tolerance

H Natarajan

The news of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif testing positive for a banned anabolic steroid comes as no real surprise. If one scrolls through the entries in the Hall of Shame, most of the tainted seem driven by commercial considerations and/or because of their exposure to the seamy side of the high life. High-profile cricketers like Shoaib are prime candidates on both counts, especially in view of the fact that the game does not have the kind of monitoring and testing that a sport like international athletics has.

When friends rang me up to alert me on the breaking news on television, the thing I asked was if tests found the same banned substance in both players. As it turned out, it was the banned Nandrolone that was discovered inside both players.

Now comes the news quoting eyewitness on Pakistan’s recent tour of England that both Shoaib and Asif smoked cannabis on the lawn of the team hotel after winning the third One-Day International at Southampton early last month. Considering that the team was still in the grip of one of the biggest controversies ever in cricket, the brazen act in public was either an extreme display of dare-devilry, plain foolishness or simply care-a-damn attitude.

Of course, cricket has seen such indulgences in the past: Ian Botham (marijuana), Ed Giddins (cocaine), Phil Tufnell (suspected of smoking cannabis), five South Africa players on the 2001 tour (cannabis) and, lastly, Shane Warne who tested positive for using diuretic and getting caught just before the 2003 World Cup. All of them paid the price for their indiscretions.

The cannabis incident may or may not have a direct link to the findings by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but the fact that Shoaib and Asif have allegedly been smoking cannabis and that the same banned substance is found in both, could weaken their defense. Incidentally, both missed the early part of the English tour because of injuries.

Shoaib – and Asif – has hope till the ‘B’ sample corroborates the findings of the ‘A’ sample. But should the ‘B’ sample also indict him, Shoaib will find his past lining up on the side of the prosecutors and detractors to nail him. His body is not the beautiful machine it once was; it has gone into the garage for frequent check-ups. And with age also not his ally, a two-year ban - that is widely perceived if he fails the second test as well – could well mean the end of a colourful and controversial cricketing career.

International Cricket Council (ICC) chief executive Malcolm Speed said cricket's governing body has "zero tolerance" on doping - a great statement to make. But then why hasn’t the ICC adopted stringent measures like the International Associations of Athletics Federation (IAAF)? Why not conduct off-seasons checks on players? Why not get the anti-doping inspectors to drop in unannounced at the door of any cricketer and have him tested? It’s only such actions that will make lofty proclamations of “zero tolerance” more meaningful and acceptable. It’s time for ICC to take total control over the vexed issue of doping and get countries like India, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh into the WADA ambit for conducting regular doping tests.

It’s was shocking, to put it mildly, to read Speed say that the latest drug scandal is an internal matter of Pakistan. But what was even more stunning was his statement saying, "There is nothing in our anti-doping policy to allow the ICC to come in there, but if WADA isn't happy with the outcome, they can come in over the top of that." If there is nothing in the ICC anti-doping policy for the ruling body to assert its position on such an important matter, then it’s a serious flaw and needs to be rectified immediately. If a player is seeking unfair and illegitimate means to boost his physical resources, it’s to the detriment of the opposition. The ICC is duty-bound, as the apex body, to protect the interests of teams that come against drug-cheats.

Nandrolone, the anabolic steroid found in Shoaib and Asif, has been used by many well known sportspersons in the past - sprinters Linford Christie (Great Britain), and Merlene Ottey (Jamaica), tennis player Petra Korda (Czech) and footballer Edgar Davids (Netherlands) to name a few. It’s used to speed up the recover process from injuries, increase muscle mass, generate power and stamina. Just the kind of drug a fast bowler, unmindful of the consequences, may be tempted to take, especially if he has been sidelined from injuries.

It’s laudable on the part of the PCB to take this tough action on two key players, though it’s a mystery why it waited till almost the start of their campaign in the Champions Trophy to break the news. ICC has made it clear that it’s entirely Pakistan’s prerogative to decide on punishment, if the players are found guilty. Both Shoaib and Asif are key arsenals in the Pakistan fast bowling machinery and the PCB will be under enormous pressure from forces sympathetic towards the two players to go soft on them, if their ‘B’ sample confirms the findings of the ‘A’ sample.

Shoaib’s failed test follows that of two other high-profile sportspersons – sprinter Justin Gatlin and cyclist Floyd Landis. It’s the duty of the administrators to send the right message across to the young generations who idolize these men. Allowing culprits to escape with a slap on the wrists will only serve as an encouragement to impressionable minds and play havoc with their lives.

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