MUMBAI — India's government on Thursday urged that the Indian Premier League be cancelled to help slow the coronavirus pandemic after organisers said they were ready to play in empty stadiums to keep the tournament on schedule.
Cricket leaders will meet on Saturday to decide whether the Twenty20 tournament featuring some of the world's top players will start on March 29.
The Indian cricket board announced late Thursday the final two one-day internationals between India and South Africa will be played "without any public gathering, including spectators". The opening match was washed out without a ball being bowled.
A spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs briefed the media in New Delhi and urged the sports federations to decide wisely on holding events.
"Think it is for the organisers to decide whether to go ahead with it or not," Dammu Ravi, additional secretary, MEA and coordinator for COVID-19, said.
"Our advice would be to not do it at this time but if they want to go ahead, it is their decision."
The stakes are huge. The 60-game league is said to generate more than $11 billion a year to the Indian economy and Chinese mobile-maker Vivo paid $330 million to be the top sponsor for 2018-2022.
The BCCI, which has already slashed the prize money for the winners and runners-up, are ready to comply with every advisory to start the tournament on time.
"We are keen to start the IPL on time even if it means without crowds," a senior BCCI official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"It could be TV-only as it is a medical emergency and we can do nothing about that."
On top of a growing number of virus cases — which surged to over 70 in four days — and one death, new visa restrictions on foreigners could close the door on the 60-plus international stars such as Australia's David Warner and England's Ben Stokes.
According to the latest ministry of health advisory, "no public gathering takes place in any sporting event".
Ticket sales for India's second ODI against South Africa in Lucknow on Sunday and the final match in Kolkata on March 18 have now been stopped.
The Maharashtra state government has already ordered Mumbai Indians, the reigning champions, to delay ticket sales for the gala opening game against arch-rivals Chennai Super Kings.
Maharashtra has called on the central government to order all games played without spectators -- as some European football leagues are now doing.
"Human life has far more value than the IPL," said Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope.
Karnataka state, the home of Virat Kohli's Bangalore Royal Challengers, wants the league cancelled altogether, reports said.
Some activist groups have launched cases at the Supreme Court and courts in Chennai and Mumbai to halt the league.
— Agence France-Presse