sport

Hair holds key to drug testing

English cricket is set to step up its drug-testing procedures as a result of the death of Tom Maynard.

Surrey batsman Maynard was accidentally killed on a train track last June but it was revealed at his inquest he was high on cocaine and ecstasy, as well as drunk, at the time.

It also emerged that the 23-year-old had been a regular user of recreational drugs for at least three-and-a-half months prior to his death.

This was discovered through analysis of a hair sample and the coroner recommended cricket introduce such screening techniques to test for illicit substances in future.

The England and Wales Cricket Board, in conjunction with UK Anti-Doping and the Professional Cricketers' Association, currently conduct around 200 random tests each year, all on urine samples.

Yet urine can only provide information for a short period of activity and in the case of cocaine, which exits the system quickly, this might only be for the previous 24 hours.

A hair sample offers a much longer timeframe and, if the strand is long enough, can detect drug use dating back several months.

Dr Tom Bassindale, a leading forensic toxicologist based at Sheffield Hallam University, said: "That is the major advantage of using hair.

"For monitoring social and recreational drug use, it makes a lot of sense.

"For cocaine, for example, if you were testing blood you might only have 12-24 hours. With urine, it would be 24-36 hours. With hair, it is as long as the hair.

"Hair grows about one centimetre a month.

"In the Maynard case, they mentioned three-and-a-half months, which suggests they had a hair sample three-and-a-half centimetres long.

"It is a very good method, and used in conjunction with urine testing, the two work well together.

"Urine is good in competition, whereas hair gives you the longer picture."

The ECB tests both in competition and out but, in accordance with World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines, their out-of-competition tests are for performance-enhancing drugs only.

The ECB roughly defines out of competition as any day on which a player is not involved in a match during the season. This is one area where testing is likely to be increased.

Using hair might also allow testers to detect activity several months prior to the season beginning.

There are practical issues with that, however, chiefly being that some players have very short hair.

Bassindale said: "To get a reasonable test, you need hair a couple of centimetres long.

"In the case of sports people, you may have to stipulate they had hair of a certain length, which may not go down too well.

"You're also looking over a time period, rather than at specific days, and some people feel uneasy about that, as it means an employer is effectively looking at what people do in their spare time."

Other players might even be completely bald, but body hair can also be used.

Bassindale said: "Head hair is the most convenient and the most studied, but you can use other body hair if there is none on the head."

The PCA have expressed a willingness to use hair-sampling in light of the coroner's report, although they want time for the practicalities to be examined first.

Chief executive Angus Porter said: "We are probably talking body hair rather than head hair.

"Other sports have successfully managed to find a route through this including our counterparts in Australian cricket and in rugby union.

"Anything we do is going to follow their lead and learning.

"We will probably make it a condition people retain enough body hair that testing can be done.

"That is the sort of practical issue you need to button down before you launch into something.

"It would be very tempting to leap into action and announce a programme would be started tomorrow but there is quite a lot of detail to look at and this is just one of those elements."

UKAD do not carry out tests on hair but it is a method they may also consider in future.

Spokesperson Caroline Hale said: "It is not something I believe any anti-doping agency does but we are always looking for new ways of testing and gaining samples."

England bowler Stuart Broad described the current testing programme at the top level of the game as "pretty stringent" but would welcome any further developments if it means avoiding a repeat of the Maynard case.

"As an international player, we have to fill out an hour a day where we're available for drug-testing with the ICC or UK Sport," Broad said after day two of England's Test warm-up against a New Zealand XI.

"It's pretty tight and pretty stringent, so in the international set-up you're tested pretty regularly.

"I obviously welcome the ECB or PCA's move to doing regular testing - because we want to avoid such a tragic case again.

"The PCA have done a fantastic job over the last 15 years, certainly since I've been involved in the sport. But after a tragic case like that, it's great to see they're looking for improvements."