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India halts lucrative IPL cricket tournament as COVID rages

Opposition urges full lockdown after total cases top 20m

NEW DELHI -- India's most popular cricket tournament was suspended mid-way on Tuesday owing to a devastating second wave of COVID-19 that has swept the country and infected players in one of the most lucrative sports leagues in the world.

The 14th edition of the cash-rich Indian Premier League, which started on April 9 with the participation of top cricketers from various countries, was slated to run until May 30, but despite playing in empty stadiums and taking other precautions, several players tested positive for coronavirus.

While millions had stayed glued to TV screens in the cricket-obsessed nation to watch the series, there has been recent criticism that too many resources were being diverted for the sport even as India joined the U.S. in crossing the grim milestone of 20 million COVID-19 cases in this ongoing second surge.

"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 organizers said in a statement Tuesday.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India "will do everything in its powers to arrange for the secure and safe passage of all the participants in IPL 2021."

Chinese smartphone maker Vivo was the title sponsor of this edition of the IPL, while online sports gaming firm Dream11, automaker Tata Motors, fintech provider Cred, education technology startup Unacademy and digital brokerage company Upstox were official partners of the event. Digital payments company Paytm and tire manufacturer CEAT were also among the sponsors.

During the first wave of the pandemic in India last year, the tournament was moved to the United Arab Emirates, where it was held without crowds between September and November. According to global financial consultancy company Duff & Phelps, the value of the IPL ecosystem dropped 3.6% to 458 billion rupees ($6.2 billion) in 2020 from 475 billion rupees in 2019.

The move to halt IPL 2021 comes as India reported 357,229 infections, the seventh consecutive day of more than 350,000 cases. The country's total caseload now stands at 20.28 million with 222,408 deaths.

With a population of over 1.3 billion, India is battling a deadly second wave of the pandemic and scrambling to address an acute shortage of medical oxygen, COVID-19 treatment medicines and hospital beds. Crematoriums and cemeteries are also struggling to accommodate bodies as daily deaths have risen significantly amid the unprecedented health crisis.

Experts have blamed new variants of the virus and recent mass gatherings during political and religious events for the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases.

Many countries, including the U.S, U.K. and Japan, have offered crisis assistance to India. American pharmaceutical company Pfizer said this week it was donating COVID-19 treatments worth more than $70 million to India and is discussing with New Delhi "an expedited approval pathway" to make its vaccine available for use in the country.

India has so far administered about 160 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to people across the country since launching the inoculation drive on Jan. 16. It widened the exercise on May 1, making all adults eligible for vaccination, but the process remains slow due to dwindling supplies. Until April 30, vaccinations were restricted to people age 45 and older.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which imposed a strict nationwide lockdown for several months last year during the first wave of the pandemic, has refrained from doing so this year. However, local governments in many regions across the country, including Delhi, India's capital territory, have imposed curbs on movement of people, except for essential work, shutting down malls, cinema halls, gyms, and spas.

Modi's critics have assailed his government's handling of the crisis, with some calling for a full nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the virus.

"I just want to make it clear that a lockdown is now the only option because of a complete lack of strategy" by the government, Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the country's main opposition Indian National Congress, tweeted on Tuesday.

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