Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh: Not quite the best of friends any more (file photo)
The Indian Premier League faced its first on-field controversy with allegations that Harbhajan Singh hit Sreesanth, his India team-mate and IPL rival, after Friday's match between the Kings XI Punjab and the Mumbai Indians in Mohali. While Yuvraj Singh, Sreesanth's captain, said Harbhajan had apologised after the incident, it remains to be seen how the IPL will handle it as a disciplinary issue.
Sreesanth, who took two wickets for Punjab, was spotted in tears after the match - which his side won - and later confirmed the incident to Cricinfo.
Sources close to him said that after the match a smiling Sreesanth walked up to Harbhajan - the captain of the losing Mumbai Indians - and said "Hard luck". "That was when Harbhajan lost his cool and hit Sreesanth under the eye," said sources close to the fast bowler.
Apparently, there was a verbal exchange earlier between Sreesanth and Robin Uthappa, who was leading Mumbai's chase, and the fast bowler's celebrations after dismissing Shaun Pollock didn't go down well in the rival dugout, either. However, Sreesanth, who admitted that he was "shocked" by the incident, denied that words were exchanged between the players on the field.
Harbhajan refused to answer questions on the incident at the post-match press conference. "Can we have questions on just cricket," he said in response to questions relating to the incident. His opposing captain, however, was clear in his view. "This is really an ugly incident," Yuvraj said, "this is totally unacceptable." He added, though, that Harbhajan had visited the dressing-room after the match and apologised to Sreesanth.
"At the end of the day, players shake hands. But today we saw more that from Harbhajan and Sreesanth," said Tom Moody, the Punjab coach. "The positive thing is that Harbhajan had a long chat with Sreesanth. But I am not sure what ramifications this incident will have." Cricinfo has learnt that Sreesanth complained about the incident to officials of the Mohali franchise, including co-owners Preity Zinta and Ness Wadia.
However, IS Bindra, the president of the Punjab Cricket Association, denied an official complaint has been lodged. "Some media people have asked me about this incident. No official complaint has reached me yet. I believe what happens on the field should be sorted out by the players on the field itself," Bindra told Cricinfo. Later Sreesanth told reporters at the stadium that "nothing serious happened" and that he and Harbhajan were "still part of the national team".
"It looks like a serious matter the way it's being shown on television channels but I can't say anything now. In any tournament it should not happen, it's unfortunate what happened yesterday," Lalit Modi, the IPL chairman, told PTI. "The incident in itself is sketchy. There is no clear evidence at this moment, there are different versions about what may have happened. But at the end of the day we have to take cognizance of the fact that happened on the field.
"[So] we are waiting for the match referee and umpire's report only after which our committee will take a decision. The tournament is being played under the ICC guidelines, besides there are also tournament guidelines for the players."
On-field relations between Harbhajan and Sreesanth appeared strained during the India-South Africa Test series as well. Sreesanth had dropped Hashim Amla off Harbhajan during the Chennai Test to which Harbhajan reacted with displeasure after which he was seen motioning towards Sreesanth after making a diving save at point.
This is the second time in the last six months that Harbhajan has been at the centre of controversy. Earlier this year the Australians accused him of racially abusing Andrew Symonds during the Test series Down Under.
Ajay Shankar is deputy editor of Cricinfo in Bangalore