NEW DELHI • India halted its most popular sports tournament yesterday as the number of coronavirus infections climbed past 20 million, a dismal milestone crossed only by the United States.
Cricket officials suspended the money-spinning Indian Premier League (IPL), after the country added 10 million cases in just over four months, versus the more than 10 months taken for the first 10 million.
"These are difficult times, especially in India, and while we have tried to bring in some positivity and cheer, it is imperative that the tournament is now suspended and everyone goes back to their families and loved ones in these trying times," the IPL said in a statement.
"The Indian Premier League Governing Council and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in an emergency meeting have unanimously decided to postpone (the) IPL 2021 season, with immediate effect.
"The BCCI does not want to compromise on the safety of the players, support staff and the other participants involved in organising the IPL."
IPL chairman Brijesh Patel also told Reuters that the Covid-19 crisis had forced his hand.
The tournament, with an estimated brand value of US$6.8 billion (S$9 billion), was being played under bio-secure conditions without spectators to a huge television audience this year.
But the competition, which was staged in the United Arab Emirates last year amid the Covid-19 crisis, has been severely criticised for continuing at a time when the country's healthcare system is on the brink of a collapse.
With 3.45 million active cases, India recorded 357,229 new infections over the last 24 hours, while the death toll rose by 3,449 to 222,408, health ministry data showed, although experts say that actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.
With the IPL indefinitely suspended - it was due to end on May 30 - BCCI vice-president Rajiv Shukla told Agence France-Presse the governing body would now "make the arrangements" for the competition's international players to leave the country.
"About the foreign players, as we have said, we will try and ensure all of them get to their homes," he added.
Australian players Adam Zampa, Andrew Tye and Kane Richardson had already left their IPL teams before their country imposed a ban on arrivals from India until at least May 15.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday backed down from his threat to jail Australian citizens trying to fly home from India, saying that "the likelihood of any of that occurring is pretty much zero".
However, the travel ban is still in place and former Australia test opener Michael Slater, who is in India working as a commentator for the IPL, yesterday tweeted his rage at being stopped from leaving, claiming that Mr Morrison had "blood on his hands".
Since an effective closure of its borders in March last year, Australia has maintained a strict weekly quota for all arrivals, including citizens, to prevent any overload of their health and quarantine systems.
Roughly a quarter of the 35,000 Australians stranded overseas are in India.
The Australian Cricket Board has said it is in daily contact with those still in India, while the English Cricket Board is in talks with British nationals involved in the IPL over the next step.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS