That’ll be two valium, and two years off

Boeta Dippenaar stood outside his bedroom door in the hotel corridor in Chandigarh and demonstrated – not literally, of course – just how invasive a drugs test can be.

“You have to pull your pants down to here,” he said, indicating mid-thigh height, “and then you have to turn all the way around to show you’re not hiding anything. Then you have to pee into the cup while the doctor watches, and he really watches,” said Dippenaar. “Never took his eyes off me.”

Hiding something? Squeamish readers needn’t bother reading the next couple of sentences, but when drugs testing was still in its infancy it was not unknown for some athletes – cyclists, mostly – to hide a sack of ‘clean’ urine in their backside and pass the stuff into the cup through a small tube discreetly hidden under their own ‘tube’.

When this scam was rumbled the desperation of some elite athletes to continue the pursuit of the magic, elusive ‘edge’ led them to have the sack surgically implanted next to their own bladder and the tube surgically implanted into…

Enough of that. Such detail is as bizarre and shocking to the cricketers as it is to most people reading this. Anyway, Boeta’s struggles to provide a sample of sufficient quantity in the face of the intense medical gaze is not the point, neither is the very, very sensible question that he asked afterwards: “Why not take the sample before the match when you just haven’t spent seven hours running around in 35 degrees becoming dehydrated?”

Even more interesting, however, was the question that Dippenaar asked before the team even left for the ICC Champions Trophy when the national squad were briefed by an official from the South African Anti Doping Agency.

Being one of the brightest men to play cricket for South Africa in the last decade, Dippenaar asked what would happen to a member of the national squad if they followed every procedure required of them in the event of medical treatment being required and still failed a drugs test because an accredited, qualified doctor had prescribed either an illegal or a contaminated medication.

“Tough luck,” was the reply. “Two year ban. No exceptions.”

So, unlike players from other country’s, South Africa’s cricketers have – apparently – no right of appeal in the event of a failed drugs test and, unlike Shoaib Akhtar who was told retrospectively that all he had to do was ‘pick up a phone’ before he popped the pills.

The best an innocently doped Proteas players could hope for, according to the Anti Doping official, was a third-party claim for loss of earning and compensation against the errant or unlucky doctor.

There are many, many pills and potions that the majority of us would never think twice about using to treat everything from the common cold to a simple skin infection but which could lead to a two-year ban for a professional sportsman and, potentially, the end of his career.

What made me think of all this now was the predicament of England’s Marcus Trescothick who is suffering from a nervous disorder and depression. Whilst the most effective, long-term treatment for such problems is undoubtedly counselling, there is equally no doubt that medication can help. But that wasn’t an option for the opening batsmen and, if the lack of concern and sympathy being shown to him by his fellow countrymen is anything to go by, he could become the first cricketer to lose his livelihood for NOT taking banned substances.

Trescothick’s emotional burn-out has as much to do with a series of appalling personal tragedies in his life as it is with the amount of time he has spent touring away from his young family, but the fact remains that a professional cricketers’ life is a deeply unnatural and often psychologically unhealthy existence leading to a variety of social problems if not properly managed.
Which is why I am in such animated agreement with selection convenor Haroon Lorgat when he talks about his absolute determination to finally instigate a policy of player rotation this season despite strong resistance from virtually every nationally contracted player.

Lorgat talks of having physically fir players for the World Cup in March and April. “The last thing we need is half a dozen players carrying niggles,” he says, quite rightly.

From my perspective, however, it’s the fitness of the stuff between the players’ ears that is of far more consequence and concern. Not now, necessarily, but in three, four or even ten years time. Nobody knows the damage an extra week on tour can do to a player on the edge of the Trescothick abyss. And the good that can be done by an extra day at home.
Particularly because very few people even know there is an abyss, let alone how close they are to it.

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