The Harbhajan-Sreesanth spat April 27, 2008

A time bomb waiting to go off

To anyone who has followed Indian cricket in the past few months, Friday night's incident was inevitable

Sleeping through the static: Sreesanth's one virtue, if it can be called that, is his ability to get away © AFP

For too long now, the two protagonists at the centre of the Friday Night Farce have been careening towards a head-on collision - if not with each other, then with anyone standing in their way. For too long, the men in charge of them have either looked away or handled them with kid gloves. For too long, Indian cricket has protested, in almost every recent controversy - and there have been several - that it is more sinned against than sinner, that the real villain was always an Australian or South African or A N Other.

On Friday night it all came home to roost in scenes that were at the same time embarrassing, ludicrous, laughable, ominous - but not surprising. The Indian Premier League's first spat was not between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds or Matthew Hayden, it was Indian against Indian. And, as Sreesanth blubbered in the manner of a child who has lost a playground spat, as Harbhajan walked around with a sheepish look on his face (and where have we seen that before), one thought kept going through the mind: that if and when this happened, Sreesanth was the prime candidate for being hit, and Harbhajan was the most likely offender.

Cricket, Indian cricket in particular, had it coming. What an irony the BCCI, which has so long indulged these two, may now have to ban one - it has already suspended Harbhajan pending the inquiry - and sanction the other. That sound you hear is of Australians chuckling at what has come to pass.

What happened on the field is not clear; as with the infamous sledging episode at Sydney, this incident was not shown on television. It appears that Sreesanth, who plays for the Kings XI Punjab, walked up to Harbhajan - captain of the opposing Mumbai Indians - after the match and commiserated on Mumbai's loss. "Hard luck", Sreesanth is believed to have said. At which point Harbhajan apparently hit Sreesanth below the eye. We have only Sreesanth's version; Harbhajan has been lying low, presumably realising that discretion is the better part.

To anyone who has followed Indian cricket in the past few months, the incident was inevitable. Sreesanth has gone from being a hugely talented bowler - one can still hear Allan Donald's appreciation of the ball's seam position in his hand - to a petulant, theatrical time-bomb who has allowed his baiting skills (and now his bawling skills) to dominate his bowling skills. He has rarely needed an excuse to turn round and stare at, or sledge, or brush past or bump into the batsman. It has happened when playing for India; it has gone unchecked. It has happened in the IPL, too. In fact it happened on Friday - minutes before we saw Sreesanth shed tears, we saw him sledge Mumbai's batsman, Musavir Khote, whom he had just dismissed. Many will see what followed as a case of crying wolf.

Both are part of a new India where aggression is celebrated, where on-field antics, often seen as entertainment, strike a chord with the Common Man. And where the finger of suspicion raised against an Indian player is prima facie an insult against the country

Sreesanth's one virtue, if it can be called that, is his ability to get away. That's a trick Harbhajan has not been able to manage in an often controversial career that has of late seen more headlines associated with his antics than with his wicket-taking abilities. It is no coincidence that he was at the centre of the two major incidents during India's tour of Australia earlier this year - the charge of racism in Sydney, from which he was let off on a technicality, and Hayden's reference to him as a "little obnoxious weed", a wrangle that continued long after he'd returned to India.

Last month, these two turned on each other during the India-South Africa Test series. It stemmed from a dropped catch by Sreesanth off Harbhajan's bowling during the Chennai Test; Harbhajan reacted with visible displeasure. Later, after making a diving save at point off RP Singh's bowling, Harbhajan was seen gesticulating at Sreesanth, who was at mid-off. From there to Mohali was but a short step.

Perhaps it isn't their fault; perhaps they've just been handled badly. Perhaps they needed a kick up their backsides instead of a deaf ear or, worse, a sympathetic arm around the shoulder and, in Harbhajan's case, the media's assurance that all of India was backing him in his fight against the racism charge. Both are part of a new India where aggression is celebrated, where on-field antics, often seen as entertainment, strike a chord with the Common Man. And where the finger of suspicion raised against an Indian player is prima facie an insult against the country.

Both are also part of an Indian team that has recently adopted aggressive tactics, not just as a counter but proactively. In an interview with Cricinfo last month Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the team's captain in the shorter versions of the game, indicated that the sledging and gamesmanship were calibrated, often using selected players for the task. "If you have a guy who is able to do it and who should do it, I make it a point that he does it."

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has indicated that sledging and gamesmanship are calibrated, and doesn't refrain from using selected players for the task © AFP

Dhoni also warned against excesses but said there were inbuilt circuit-breakers - "Personally, I believe if you get punished a few times, you know what's happening and what your boundaries are." Therein lies the nub - there's been little official sanction of the on-field tantrums that have on occasion threatened to take the gloss off India's cricket successes.

Now there is opportunity. If the IPL is to establish itself as a bona fide cricket tournament and not merely a money-spinning carnival, it must act now, and act firmly. If Harbhajan indeed hit Sreesanth, he must pay; if Sreesanth provoked the act, he, too must be dealt with. But that is the easy part; the ICC's Code of Conduct will take care of this incident. What will be harder to tackle is the growing culture of aggression from where this incident emerged.

It is not natural to Indian cricketers, it is not something that can be bought off the peg and worn every match-day; the Australians have perfected it - have you ever witnessed two Australians enacting the Mohali scenes? - because it is nothing more than an extension of their daily lives. The Indian board must suo motu send out the message that this behaviour - provocation, reaction, hostility - will not be tolerated, that players must rein themselves in.

In a larger perspective, the issue may also compel the franchises to look a little closer at how they run their teams. Collecting the world's best players at auction and getting your biggest local star to captain them may not be the best way to win matches. Harbhajan is patently not captaincy material; Mumbai Indians, currently languishing one place off the bottom of the table, paid US$850,000 for his services, which are now in jeopardy just when they need him.

There may yet be some good coming out of this farce but that will depend on how seriously the Indian board takes the offence, takes itself and takes the IPL. The world will be watching.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Perdy on April 30, 2008, 8:00 GMT

    I quite agree with Jaya. But one is not sure as to what exactly happened, obviously Sree had provoked the Sardar during the match, to such an extent, as was echoed by many other players from Mumbai, to create such a situation. There is no smoke without a fire. I felt both guys should have been banned for 3 games each, rather than banning the turbanator for the whole tournament. That seemed a bit harsh.Even MS HAD said somewhere that the hearing panel study the whole chain of events, which seems was not done. Moreover IPL & BCCI need to provide them some counselling sessions through some experts & not inflate the issue with a trumpet. Obviously it's not an acceptable thing, but v need to move on & discipline the two players.

    Perdy Mohindru


  • David on April 30, 2008, 3:15 GMT

    The following statement is plain offensive and Cricinfo needs to get Mr Gupta to apologise or get rid of him: "What will be harder to tackle is the growing culture of aggression from where this incident emerged. It is not natural to Indian cricketers... the Australians have perfected it - because it is nothing more than an extension of their daily lives."

    Really. So Mr Gupta considers that aggression is just an extension of Australians' daily lives? Perhaps he might consider whether that is offensive - like calling someone of African descent a monkey, for instance? You are tending to confuse aggression and sledging, even though the latter doesnt come across as polite to many Indians. Nor should you confuse aggression with refusing to take a backward step. If you are going to posture aggressively you should be willing to back it up. Sreesanth's bawling shows he was just a fraud. But quite right about the BCCI protecting these two and bullying over the Harbajhan appeal.

  • Avijit on April 29, 2008, 8:23 GMT

    Hi friends I feel whatever u all have said that beside harbhajan also sreesanth should be punished.I have never seen the incident happening i have only heard it in the news.U see the authorities should take this matter deeply and any body is accountable if he takes law in their hand. May be Sree has provoked him but i feel any one can't can't provoke any body to take the law in hands.

  • Nikhil on April 29, 2008, 6:22 GMT

    Firstly, this is a great article Jayaditya. As an Indian watching this unfold it causes me much embarrassment and angst as only a few months ago I was supporting the Indian team in their battle against the Aussie team. I defended the antics of Bhajji with fellow Australian friends but all that seems rather foolish now after reviewing this incident. Looks like Sachin won't be able to wrangle Bhajji out of this one! I hope Bhajji receives a severe punishment and that it is a lesson for others too. Sree should grow up and channel his concentration on his line and length, instead of showing aggression at a batsman when he is dismissed all the time! We all play hard on the field and want to win and the aggression should stay on the field within the spirit of the game. That's why cricket is the game that it is today! BTW, why aren't the police involved in this incident???

  • Fatt on April 29, 2008, 5:28 GMT

    This IPL tournament is great stuff. So far it has revealed the following: a. Harbhajan slaps and is not a saint after all b. Sree is a cry baby and not so tough after all c. Symo hits the fastest 100 d. Gilchrist hits an even faster 100 Cheers.

  • A. on April 29, 2008, 3:03 GMT

    Serve. Them. Right!!!

    Trust me, it's not just the Aussies giggling at how red-faced Indians must be after defending Bhaji so vociferously a few months ago.

    Black cricket fans are snickering too- we knew Bhaji's ugly behaviour would show again soon, especially after you all made him out to be a hero during the Aussie imbroglio.

    I NEVER bought that ridiculous 'Indians are not racist' spiel nor did I buy that a well-travelled man like Bhaji did not know it was racist to call a black man a monkey- does he think we're stupid? Well clearly, since he thinks we're monkeys...I would have liked him to come try that in the West Indies!

    I am THRILLED to see that the chickens have come to roost and Indians have been able to see for themselves what an obnoxious, odious character he really is.

    Fantastic! Pass the popcorn, I'm enjoying this show!

  • Chickos_Champs on April 28, 2008, 15:49 GMT

    I feel it is important to note here on Cricinfo that Harbhajan was again prepared to blatantly lie in an attempt to cover his own mis-deeds.

    It has been reported that he told CNN-IBN television: "At the end of the match, I did push him, which might have hurt him" when in fact he has pleaded guilty to striking a player in the face....

    This smacks of the same half truths / lies he and Tendulkar were prepared to spout when racial abuse of an australian player recently got him into hot water

  • Partish on April 28, 2008, 14:22 GMT

    Harbhajan has rightfully been handed a stringent ban for 11 matches. BCCI should also take cue and ban him for 5 test matches. Having said that, it takes 2 hands to clap and I believe Sreesanth should also be penalised for the utter nonsense that he displays on the field. He should not be let off cos he was also equally responsible for what happened the other day at Mohali. He is an extremely average bowler and needs to learn his trade. Getting belted for 10-12 runs an over and then hurling abuses at fellow players does not make you an aggressive player. Look at all the great bowlers of the past - Harshall, Garner, Holding, Hadlee, Imran or Kapil, they never abused to get wickets. These 2 guys need to be sent to some sports psychiatrist to help them regain composure and focus. I personally dont see the day being too far when One of these guys get seriously assaulted be one of their opposition for the utter nonsense they do on the field. BCCI and ICC should act fast.

  • Arjun on April 28, 2008, 14:21 GMT

    Our players are pampered more than we need to, i think whole of australia must be enjoying this episode. Now i seriously think that their must be some truth in aussie allegation against bhajji. Haydon and symond must be smirking by now.Bhajji and Sree both are obnoxious weeds, they must be punished, and for sree he should back his sledging by his performance, he should get 100% marks in sledging and 0% in performance.

  • Praveen on April 28, 2008, 13:51 GMT

    IPL is now Reality Show of cricket, where there is no reality and all drama. I don't see future of cricket any more. Till how long people will enjoy this drama. I request ICC to intervene seriously on IPL & ICL. These are nothing, but to spoil world of cricket. Now other countires are also trying to do the same. All the cricketer would retire for short-term but huge money. This can not be future of cricket. I think Malcom Speed exit from ICC body is clear indication that cricket is to sychronise in India only. Even Pakistan is now no more serious for cricket. Till how long only India bear cricket. Be serious all cricketing bodies. Cricket is dying.

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