The possibility of IPL 2020 being a severely restricted tournament - with at least some part of it being played to empty stands - in light of the coronavirus threat has increased following statements by two key ministries of the Indian government on Thursday. While the sports ministry said it would not stop sporting events from taking place as long as they adhere strictly to governmental guidelines, discouraging mass gatherings, the external affairs (foreign) ministry went a step further and said their advice was to not go ahead with the tournament at this time, but left the decision to the organisers.
The IPL itself is yet to issue a statement on the tournament but its Governing Council is scheduled to meet franchises on March 14 in Mumbai. The 13th edition of the tournament will likely feature nearly 60 overseas players, arriving from and through different parts of the globe that have been affected by the pandemic.
On Wednesday, shortly after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) a pandemic, the Indian government updated its travel advisory to increase visa restrictions for travel to India. At a press conference of the Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday afternoon in Delhi, Dammu Ravi, its point person to deal with COVID-19 issues, was asked about impact of the new travel advisory on the IPL.
"We are analysing a lot of requests of the status of sports events that are being held in India and something linked to a mega event, which is already being planned, so how do you deal with this?" Ravi replied. "It is for the organisers to decide whether to go ahead with it or not. And then we will be open to the idea, if they really want to do it. Our advice would be not to do it at this time, but if they still want to go ahead it is their decision."
He was later asked how the government would deal with private organisations going ahead with their plans "for commercial considerations despite the grave danger". "The advisory that we have received yesterday is very clear that only (for) compelling reasons if anybody wants to come they will come. Now it may even include sports events. At this point of time, I have no definite answer whether commercial events will be banned or not. But in course of time we will see how things evolve."
The IPL is the most lucrative tournament in cricket and offers the BCCI as well as the eight franchises substantial sums of money. In 2017, Star India bought the global broadcast rights for IPL for a record USD 2.55 billion. Consequently, each franchise would earn around INR 150-200 plus crore per season from the IPL's commercial pot. Therefore, it would not be an easy decision for the BCCI to defer or cancel the IPL.
Ravi, though, put the onus on the organisers, asking them to think beyond the commercial aspect. "If it is a commercial decision, then we will have to assess in course of time if that requires special guidelines to be issue on that," he said. "If we are looking at mega events there is also Tokyo Olympics which is going to happen later this year as well - all these are decisions for the organisers, they have assess for their own sake and for the health of the people around in that country as to what decisions (they ought to take), but we will be reviewing it in course of time also."
'People's health cannot be put in danger'
Earlier on Thursday, Kiren Rijiju, India's Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports, spoke about the guidelines on mass gatherings, issued on March 5 by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. They quoted expert advice to "reduce mass gatherings to avoid the spread of COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus disease" and advised that mass gatherings be avoided or possibly postponed till the disease spread was contained.
"All international events in India have been cancelled," Rijiju told reporters outside Parliament. "But we are telling sports federations, we are telling all to comply with the guidelines issued by the Health Ministry. So any sports body in India should ensure [the guidelines are followed]."
Asked specifically about the IPL, which is scheduled to start on March 29, Rijiju indicated that fans are likely not to be allowed at the grounds. "We are not stopping the game," he said. "We are just telling [the IPL] to ensure that there is no mass gathering. Precautionary steps are very important for the health of the country."
Considering that IPL matches are usually attended by several thousand fans across all venues, Rijiju said the organisers would need to ensure that safety of the "people" is not put at risk. "That is the guideline," he said. "If matches happen the organisers would need to put in place all infrastructure including screening machines. You cannot hold a match without that.
"We are not saying anything to stop the match. We are just saying: even if they go ahead with the match, ensure that guidelines are followed. People's health cannot be put into danger."
Shortly after Rijiju's comments, the sports ministry also issued an advisory on Thursday to various national sports federations, the Indian Olympics Association as well as to the BCCI president Sourav Ganguly and secretary Jay Shah.
"To deal with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare has issued advisories and advised the state governments to take appropriate action under the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897," the sports ministry's advisory said.
"You are advised to adhere to advisories issued by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and ensure that no public gathering takes place in any sporting event. In the event, the sporting event cannot be avoided, the same could be done without allowing gathering of the people, including spectators."
On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) a pandemic. Shortly after that, the Indian government changed its travel advisory to increase visa restrictions for travel to India. "All existing visas, except diplomatic, official, UN/International Organizations, employment, project visas, stand suspended till April 15, 2020. This will come into effect from 1200 GMT on March 13, 2020, at the port of departure," the government statement said.
ESPNcricinfo understands, however, that those connected with the IPL would come under employment or project visas, which is likely to leave the tournament unaffected as things stand.
As per the figures released by the WHO, 118 countries have been affected by COVID-19, classified as a respiratory illness. More than 120,000 people have been infected with over 4,300 deaths worldwide. In India so far, 73 people have been infected with no deaths as yet.
It remains to be seen how this development will affect the remaining matches of the ODI series between India and South Africa, which began on Thursday in Dharamsala. The second ODI is scheduled to be played in Lucknow on March 15, and the third ODI in Kolkata on March 18.
On Wednesday, the BCCI issued its first statement on how it was dealing with the pandemic ahead of the series. Along with following the prescribed dos and don'ts on personal hygiene, the BCCI had asked the India players to be mindful during their interactions with fans, including not shaking hands or using third-party gadgets for selfies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already forced the cancellation and postponement of sporting events across the globe with a few of them in India. The first major tournament to be postponed was the 3x3 basketball Olympic qualifiers, which was scheduled to be held in Bengaluru from March 18 to 22.
The Indian Open golf tournament, scheduled to be held in Gurugram from March 19 to 22, has been postponed, with the organisers promising to reschedule the event at "some point" later this year. The Shooting World Cup, in Delhi from March 15 to 26, has also been postponed, as has India's FIFA World Cup qualifier against Qatar in Bhubaneswar on March 26. The India Open badminton tournament is going ahead as of now - in Delhi from March 24 to 29 - but without spectators.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo