Violence on the field of sport is nothing new. Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final is still fresh in memory. Heavyweight boxing witnessed the disgusting sight of Mike Tyson biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear in their title bout in 1997. Cricket, long known as the gentleman’s game, may claim to be some kind of exception. There have been instances of players clashing with spectators — Sylvester Clarke in Multan, Inzamam-ul-Haq in Toronto — and expressing frustration by kicking the stumps down. But the game has rarely seen something as repulsive as Harbhajan Singh’s physical assault on S. Sreesanth at the end of an Indian Premier League (IPL) game between the Mumbai Indians and Kings XI Punjab in Mohali on April 25. Revulsion and anger quickly made way for introspection. After all, ultra-nationalism made the Board of Control for Cricket in India come close to calling off the last tour of Australia mid-series — because a charge of racial abuse was brought against the same offender. Harbhajan has had a poor record of discipline at every level. Suspended from the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore early in his career, the off-spinner was involved in at least four transgressions that attracted summons from international match referees between 1998 and 2005. This was before South African referee Mike Proctor found him guilty of racial abuse against Andrew Symonds in the Sydney Test in January 2008 and handed out a three-Test ban.
Justice John Hansen overturned that decision and lowered the penalty to just a fine for abusive language — but suggested in his verdict that Harbhajan had been riding his luck and deserved a more severe penalty. “At the end of the day,” noted the New Zealand judge, “Mr. Singh can feel himself fortunate that he has reaped the benefit of these database and human errors.” He was referring to the inability of the International Cricket Council to make available all the relevant data on the Indian off-spinner’s previous infractions. Harbhajan’s luck might have run out this time. The ban for the rest of the IPL matches is far too lenient and one hopes the BCCI, which has initiated independent disciplinary proceedings, will take action proportionate to the offence. The minimum punishment prescribed in the ICC Code of Conduct for a Level 4 offence (physical assault of another player, umpire, referee, official or spectator) is a five-Test or 10-match ODI ban; and the maximum is a life ban. Given the recidivism, the just punishment for Harbhajan will be something in between. In a game that is passionately followed by millions across the country, with youngsters looking up to their highly paid heroes, there should be zero tolerance of physical violence and foul-mouthed abusive conduct.