What can other sports teach us about doping in cricket?

Posted by

We’ll try and keep this fairly short because now that we’ve written the headline, we’ve realised we don’t actually want to write a whole big thing because it’s not really a very fun subject.

Jarrod Kimber yesterday posted a sort of mea-culpa-cum-podcast-advert on his substack. It’s about drugs in sport and how he used to think that cricket was a bad sport to dope in. 

He points out that this is a very common view in cricket and says it comes from a position of ignorance.

“It’s not that cricket hasn’t been touched,” he writes. “But you are shaped by the sport you cover. If I wrote about cycling or athletics, I’d be all over these topics.”

It struck us that this is us. We do actually cover cycling – and not solely in our usual way, but also in a proper grown-up way where we have to know the difference between triamcinolone and erythropoietin.

So here, in no particular order, are a few things that a cycling journalist thinks about when he considers whether players are doping in cricket.

Cricket is not just a game of skill

Have you heard of baseball? Baseball is a game where a great many people have turned to steroids over the years because baseball financially rewards people who can propel a ball very quickly with their hand or hit it ‘out of the park’ using a bat.

The similarities with cricket’s shortest format are obvious, but there are easy ways you could improve your performance in the longer formats too.

Ever seen a batsman get out to a tired shot? Ever noticed how a fast bowler becomes less fast as a spell, match or series wears on? Fitness is important. There are definitely things you can take that would make you a hell of a lot better at Test cricket.

Cricket is not especially likely to catch dopers

Last time we wrote about this in 2017, we found that in India just 138 in-competition tests had been carried out in 2016 and only 15 out-of-competition tests. In England, 102 in-competition tests were carried out in roughly the same period, plus 28 out-of-competition tests.

World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) figures for 2016 state that 1,164 tests were carried out worldwide that year, of which only 31 were out-of-competition tests. (Out-of-competition is when people are far more likely to be doping.)

Fencing conducted 1,618 tests in the same period and canoeing conducted 4,196 tests. Road cycling, with only a few hundred professionals, conducted over 13,000 tests.

Cricket’s were all urine tests too. Blood testing only began the following year and hasn’t exactly taken off since.

There is not quite so great an incentive to dope in cricket as in cycling, but you are far, far, far less likely to get caught if you do.

It’s striking that Andre Russell – a Jamaican – has been cricket’s most high profile victim of out-of-competition testing. Russell was not banned for a positive test, but for being unavailable for three out-of-competition tests in a year.

Given the athletic pedigree of the region, the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO) has probably been subject to greater scrutiny than many other drug testing agencies over the years. You wonder whether their testing regime may be a little more thorough.

Cricket may not especially want to catch dopers

Cricket’s administrators want their sport to be clean and above board. If there is a chance that it maybe isn’t, they may prefer that it continues to appear clean and above board.

If you look elsewhere, there have been cases where something of a blind eye has been turned to athletes considered hugely important to the marketability of their respective sports.

We are not saying that this is happening in cricket. What we are saying is that those who run cricket generally believe they are primarily responsible for the sport’s popularity, not its purity. As such, anti-doping is a means to an end.

In short, high profile doping is bad for a sport’s credibility, so you try and prevent it. But if you later discover that you have already failed to prevent it then… maybe you manage things a slightly different way.

‘Doping’ is not black and white – it is a continuum

There is a tendency to think in terms of good guys and bad guys; players doing things properly and those who are breaking the rules.

But lines are not so easily drawn. Performance enhancers stretch from caffeine to blood transfusions. (Strikingly, the latter isn’t even a drug – it’s just your own blood being put back in again.) Between those two extremes lie a great many things that are obviously wrong and a few others which aren’t.

Take, for example, allergy medication. An over-the-counter nasal spray isn’t going to make much difference either way, but in extreme cases the condition can also be treated with an injection that also just happens to melt away body fat but not muscle.

Did that athlete need treatment for their allergies? Perhaps. Was that treatment permitted within the rules of the sport? Yes – but only if they really needed it. Did they really need it? Maybe, maybe not.

Most drugs have multiple effects. Some side effects are desirable. When these drugs are prescribed, how can you discern intent?

There will always be borderline drugs that are sometimes permitted and sometimes not and also borderline treatment cases where the use of a particular drug may or may not be justified.

You shouldn’t just accept it and let people take whatever they want to take

We get why people make the ‘level playing field’ argument that athletes should be allowed to take whatever they want and then it’s ‘fair’.

However, all this would do is turn drug-taking into an arms race. Athletes would take more and more in a bid to gain an advantage – or even to keep pace with everyone else – and eventually someone would suffer great harm or die.

This is a little less likely in cricket, where sporting outcomes are not so overwhelmingly influenced by physical fitness, but the principle still stands: if you let the competitors decide what should and shouldn’t be taken, it turns into part of the competition.

In summary

No-one really knows what’s going on, but (a great many) drugs are bad mmkay?

12 comments

  1. I wonder whether the issue of doping/drugs in cricket hasn’t come up yet because such things lack impact at lower levels of the game. In soccer, being that bit quicker or more agile can help you get noticed. Ditto for (american) football, as well the help extra strength affords (indeed, steroids are allegedly rife in american football at the High School level, 15-18 yrs old).

    But what good would steroids offer the youth cricketer? Based on the shape of fast bowlers, and cricketers in general, it’s not likely brute strength.* Not likely to be speed or agility either. I wager it’s in the recuperative effects. But this seems only helpful when you’re at pro-level and playing 5 days a week.

    Caveat: I have never played cricket nor do I have any understanding of the structure of cricket below County level apart from having attended a game at Stand Cricket Club some years ago
    * Not even for T20s. In baseball, there is some reason to think the late 90s uptick in home runs was more likely due to changes in the ball, not steroids. Though ‘roids will have helped players stay healthy over a dauntingly long season, of course

  2. Coincidentally (and for a most unfortunate reason) I was motivated to write up the second of my “Keele Festival Week Beer Match” reports this weekend:

    https://ianlouisharris.com/1984/06/26/o-captain-my-captain-gentlemen-of-the-right-v-players-of-the-left-keele-festival-week-cricket-match-26-june-1984/

    Coincidentally in the context of KC’s piece, because I was selected for the 1983 match (link included within the above) due to one of the students failing a drug test (of sorts).

    This piece reminds me that my 1983 appearance was only about four months after I had been put on a course of steroids to treat mononucleosis (glandular fever). At the time the University doctor saw steroids as the “kill or cure” treatment of choice for “mono” – that is no longer recommended medical practice…

    …but could I possibly have pulled off that stunning, diving, left-handed catch had I not been on steroids within the previous few months?

    Question for advanced students: how many people who played in those Keele Festival Week cricket matches in the 1980s would have passed a drugs test during that match? Show all your workings and show us your stash.

  3. Several players have been caught for “recreational” , as opposed to “performance enhancing” drugs. I assume the same sample is tested for both. That means that since sampling is so sparse, a) recreational drug use is similarly under reported but also b) recreational drug use is more common than performance enhancing. Not sure what that says about cricketers.

    I seem to think we have had this discussion before months or even years ago,, framed as “do we care, if so why?” Is our concern players’ health, role modelling or fair play? I’m not sure if it was in the context of Alex Hales or Tom Maynard.

  4. The drive towards doping in any sport seems to be based on the ratio between skill and athleticism. So at one end there are the (almost) purely athletic sports, like cycling or weightlifting. You’ll probably bollock me for saying this, KC, but professional cyclists are not more skilful than anyone else, they can just do it harder and faster for longer. And then at the other end are the sports like snooker, which are almost 100% skill.

    (I appreciate that there are calming drugs, beta blockers and the like, that are very suited to snooker and rifle shooting.)

    Cricket used to be like outdoor snooker (see Mike Gatting), but more recently has become vastly more like football. Batsmen have to be fast between the wickets, fielders have to leap like salmon, bowlers have always had to be athletes. The problem is that the people in charge, and a large proportion of the fans and journalists, come from that earlier era. They don’t see the need for drug testing because they don’t see the need for drugs. This relegates it to a niche subject, something for sub-committee 4d to consider in “Any Other Business.”

    It should be obvious. Fast bowlers do seven-over spells, wouldn’t it be better if they could do ten-over spells, or fifteen, all at 90mph. So they need to look harder. And when they do look harder, cricket will go through a bad few months. Maybe not cycling’s level of pain (no winners of seven Tours de France because they couldn’t find an un-doped rider in the field), but nonetheless it will be painful.

    1. Two things.

      One, with the exception of Ilnur Zakarin, pro cyclists are generally quite a lot more skilful, but we’ll admit this is very much secondary to physical fitness.

      Two, on this website leaping is always done like a crested salmon specifically.

      1. Apologies, KC, you are quite right. Leaping is best done like a crested salmon.

        Although the crests, you might think, would tend to reduce the overall efficiency of the creature at sliding through the water, and hence its ability to leap. And evolution would agree with you, the crested salmon not having the clear evolutionary advantage of of smoothness, or indeed of existence, in its quest upriver.

        That is, unless you meant “crusted” salmon, which is delicious, but equally unlikely to leap well. Deliciousness, like crestedness for a leaping fish, is also a distinct evolutionary disadvantage. This is the entire reason that the crusted salmon is very rare in the wild.

    2. I reckon Tuffers will be glad to hear that “bowlers have always had to be athletes”… Can think of a few other bowlers in that camp too! Wonder if there’s a drug that helps you spin the ball more?

  5. ” ….in extreme cases the condition can also be treated with an injection that also just happens to melt away body fat but not muscle.”

    What is this injection? A friend of mine wants to know – gotten a little rotund these past few months you see. The friend, that is.

Comments are closed.