Crowds for this week’s cricket Test match in Sydney will be slashed to just a quarter of normal capacity, as New South Wales scrambles to keep on top of a growing COVID cluster.
The Sydney Cricket Ground will host just 9500 fans when the Test against India begins on Thursday, after meetings between health officials and Cricket Australia.
The SCG will be allowed to hold only one quarter of its normal 38,000 fans. It comes after harsh criticisms from the Australian Medical Association and the NSW state Labor opposition about encouraging large crowds in the middle of a virus outbreak in Sydney.
NSW recorded zero new cases in the 24 hours to 8pm on Sunday night, but at least two more will be recorded in the next set of numbers to be released on Tuesday.
“In response to the public health situation in NSW, we are working closely with Venues NSW and NSW Health to put appropriate biosecurity measures in place for our staff, players, match officials, broadcasters and fans to ensure we play the third Test at the SCG safely,” Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley said in a statement.
“Reducing the capacity of the venue is crucial in achieving social distancing requirements, and we sincerely thank ticket holders for their patience, as we process refunds today, reconfigure the SCG seating plan to deliver these social distancing measures and go back on sale.”
All tickets will be refunded, with a new set of tickets to be put on sale from 5pm Monday. Those who had previously purchased tickets will get first priority for the new seats.
The NSW state Coalition government had faced calls to scrap the Test entirely, or play it without fans.
Acting Premier John Barilaro had earlier emphasised that Sydney had been able to safely host crowded matches of cricket, football and soccer through the pandemic.
However, he urged those from regional NSW – where there is currently no known COVID cases – to not travel to Sydney for the Test.
“My advice to people would be to think about it and reconsider. Maybe this year isn’t the year to come to Sydney to watch the Test,” he said.
The Australian Medical Association has led calls for the SCG Test to be played in front of empty stands because of the risk it could be a virus super-spreading event.
Refunds will be processed from Monday as CA hastily reconfigures the iconic venue’s seating ahead of the opening day on Thursday.
Barilaro cautioned that two new cases will be part of Tuesday’s numbers and that testing numbers are “far too low”.
The NSW Nationals Leader also argued that NSW residents from regional areas should “reconsider their visit” to the SCG Test.
“Maybe this year isn’t the year to come to Sydney to watch the Test,” Barilaro said. “I know regional people use common sense.
“The risk would be … they could take it (coronavirus) back to a regional area.”
Earlier, Australian spinner Nathan Lyon has urged Australia and India to “suck it up and get on with it” as they prepare to finish their four-Test series under stricter biosecurity protocols.
Both squads are set to land in Sydney on Monday.
The fourth Test is slated to begin at the Gabba on January 15.
However, India are reportedly keen to avoid being confined to their Brisbane hotel as per the state’s current restrictions on travellers from Sydney.
“I’m not even thinking about Plan B or not playing at the Gabba … 100 per cent planning on going to Brissie and sticking with Plan A. We’ve heard nothing (to the contrary),” Lyon said.
There’s a few people from both squads who have been in a bubble for close to six months now but in my eyes it’s a very small sacrifice.
“Let’s just suck it up and get on with it. And stop complaining.”
Lyon’s words come after an apparent breach of biosecurity protocols from a group of Indian players, who recently dined indoors at a Melbourne restaurant.
India’s cricket board is still investigating the incident but every player involved is expected to be available for the third Test.
“People make mistakes, we get that,” Lyon said.
“I’m not really worried about what is being reported.
“For us it’s about … not looking into anything else that the media is blowing up.
“Everyone keeps talking about the Gabba Test match but there’s a massive Test match in a couple of days.”
The Queensland government has agreed to let both teams train and play in Brisbane but also mingle in communal areas of their hotel, which CA has booked out entirely as part of quarantine concessions.
The state’s current restrictions on travellers from Sydney will otherwise be in place.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is yet to formally complain but an unnamed source in India’s bubble told Cricbuzz there remains much unease because players don’t want to be treated like “animals in the zoo”.
“We’ve had nothing formal from the BCCI to suggest anything other than they’re supportive,” CA chief executive Hockley told reporters.
“I can’t really comment on speculation. We speak to our counterparts at the BCCI daily.
“Both teams have wanted to play the schedule as we’ve set out.
“We have clarified in the last 24 hours what the precise requirements are in Brisbane … everyone is fully across that, and supportive.”
SCG Trust boss Kerrie Mather wants the Gabba to host the final Test but confirmed her venue will have a pitch ready for the series finale as part of a “contingency plan”.
The BCCI and CA have confirmed their respective squad members and support staff all had negative COVID-19 swabs on Sunday.