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Drug skeleton in SA past

Cape Town, Feb. 9: Just hours after a blockbuster of an opening ceremony heralding World Cup 2003 has come some disturbing news: a strong suggestion that the South Africans, under the late Hansie Cronje, took performance-enhancing drugs.

Though Cronje’s side often choked on the biggest occasions, it still had a phenomenal run in the second half of the nineties. Actually, in more recent times, the South Africans have got stronger.

The damning suggestion has come from Professor Tim Noakes, the country’s most revered sports scientist and team doctor in the 1996 World Cup hosted by the subcontinent. It comes through when he talks about Cronje’s unbelievable hold on the players, in Herschelle — A Biography, to be released this month.

To quote the Sunday Times’ extract: “(Prof. Noakes) was made aware almost immediately after his appointment of Cronje’s power and the way he operated... Addressing the players in Johannesburg in late 1995, some months before the (1996) World Cup, Noakes warned them of the harmful effects of drugs and told them that they would be tested for substance abuse before they went to the tournament.”

“He was shocked when Cronje said, at the end of the presentation: ‘Your job is not to test us, but to give us the drugs that can give us a competitive advantage.’ Recalling the incident seven years later, Noakes said: ‘His (the captain’s) statement immediately undermined my status in the team. I wasn’t sure whether he was joking. At that stage, I didn’t know all of the players well enough to come back at him.’

“Noakes, who has an infectious enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of knowledge about sport, says Cronje made it clear from the start that he did not regard him as part of the team.”

To say the least, the extract couldn’t have been more badly timed: Published on the morning of South Africa’s opening game in the latest World Cup and, worse, at a time the International Cricket Council has taken muscular measures to stamp out doping. Towards that end, of course, doping control measures have been put in place for the sport’s most ambitious show.

Moreover, Cronje’s image is bound to take another beating. Should an inquiry be launched purely on the strength of the extract, it’s possible another can of worms may open. When alive, Cronje had to suffer the label of match-fixer. Eight months after his tragic death, he risks another discrediting tag.

“Now that Prof. Noakes has more than hinted at substance abuse, an investigation must be opened by the United Cricket Board of South Africa. That too quickly,” is what a well-placed source in the cricket fraternity told The Telegraph this afternoon.

It’s not insignificant that while athletes, footballers and the odd tennis player get booked for doping, there have been whispers about the involvement of cricketers.

Incidentally, much of the extract is specific to Gibbs’ special relationship with Cronje. It confirms what isn’t really a secret — that the dashing opener’s affection and respect for his one-time captain didn’t diminish even after he was banned for six months on account of an unethical tie-up with Cronje.

Still, the biography is bound to be a bestseller.

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