A time bomb waiting to go off

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.

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."

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.