Harbhajan Singh has been banned by the Indian board for five ODIs for slapping Sreesanth during an IPL match last month. The ban means Harbhajan will miss India's forthcoming tri-series in Bangladesh and the start of the Asia Cup in Pakistan, in addition to 11 matches in the IPL as earlier decided by the league.
While the decision is being seen in some quarters as a light punishment, the rider - which came at the end of the official announcement - was far more ominous: A life ban for a repeat offence. A senior BCCI official told Cricinfo that Harbhajan faces a life ban if reported and found guilty of indiscipline by match officials at any level of cricket, as specified by the Indian board's rules. The scope of that offence ranges from verbally abusing a rival player to physical assault.
"This obviously doesn't involve minor offences, such as showing dissent against an umpire's decision, which usually attract fines of 10-20% of the player's match fee," the official said. "But if he is found guilty of even verbal abuse, in any level of cricket, his career could end. The key is that the life ban threat has been officially recorded and that leaves little room for doubt later. Harbhajan is on dangerous ground and has to very careful."
Sreesanth was sent a letter by the BCCI instructing him to mend his ways on the field. "[If] you do not improve your behavior, the board would be constrained to take appropriate decision," the letter, written by board secretary Niranjan Shah, stated.
The disciplinary committee, comprising president Sharad Pawar, president-elect Shashank Manohar and vice-president Chirayu Amin, handed out the punishment after meeting Harbhajan in Mumbai. The speed of the decision-making came as a surprise since the committee was not due to meet on Wednesday; instead, a date was to be fixed for its meeting.
The committee invoked Rule 3.2.1 of the BCCI regulations and handed out the maximum punishment under it. "Under this provision, the maximum punishment that can be meted out to a player is 'a ban up to a maximum of 5 ODIs and / or 3 Test matches'," a release from the board said.
"The committee accordingly decided to ban Harbhajan Singh for five one-day internationals, starting today (14th May 2008), and further observed that any further instance of misconduct will invoke a life-ban."
Sudhir Nanavati, the BCCI's probe commissioner on the incident, explained that though Harbhajan was guilty of a Level 4 offence under ICC rules, the punishment for physical assault prescribed in the Indian board's rule book fell under a particular clause - 3.2.1, in this case. "It's still a Level 4 offence, but the prescribed punishment is under this particular clause," Nanavati told Cricinfo.
Nanavati, a senior lawyer, said he was asked by the disciplinary committee whether the punishment was appropriate, and he gave three reasons why he felt it was. "First, Harbhajan accepted his guilt straight away and apologised to the BCCI, to Sreesanth and again, in public," Nanavati said. "Secondly, he had already been handed down a stiff punishment by the IPL in the form of a ban. And thirdly, his behaviour ever since the incident was submissive, and not aggressive - he accepted his guilt, never went on the offensive and assured that he would not repeat the offence again."