How cricket can be bought off when the bets go on

The spread better's story: An author on the craze says potential earnings and dangers are both unlimited
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The Independent Online

Amidst all the charges and counter-charges flying around the world of cricket, and especially in India and South Africa, much has been made of the rise of spread betting, and the dangerous liaison between bookmakers and players.

Understandably so, as one of the central accusations concerns allegations of bets on Herschelle Gibbs to score fewer than 20 runs in a particular innings in a one-day international. He was out for 19.

In fact, the bets alleged to have been made on Gibbs' innings were not technically spread bets. And the principles of spread betting make it much more likely that it would be punters rather than bookmakers trying to bribe players.

That particular bet involving Gibbs was actually an "over and under" market, where a bookie would have given fixed odds on whether Gibbs would score more or fewer than 20. So if £100 was bet at odds of 2-1 that Gibbs would score over 20, then whether he scored 21 or 121 the punter would have received winnings of £200. There is a limited loss of £100 if such a bet loses and a maximum gain if it wins.

In spread betting in the UK, where firms are strictly regulated by the Securities and Futures Authority, the market offered on Gibbs' innings would have been roughly 27-30. That 27-30 is actually a bid-offer spread, exactly equivalent to the way shares are priced on the major stock exchanges.

The punter would have decided either to sell Gibbs' runs at the bid price of 27, betting that he would score fewer than 27, or to buy at the offer price of 30. The gap between 27 and 30 is the bookies' margin. Punters place a stake per run and so potential winnings (or losses) are high. In the case of Gibbs scoring 19, sellers at 27 would have won eight times their stake per run. So £10 per run would have won £80. Buyers at 30 would have lost 11 runs multiplied by their stake per run.

Spread betting is a fast and fluid form of gambling because, import-antly, the spread changes all the time during the game. When Gibbs reached 15 not out his spread would have adjusted upwards to a new level, for instance 44-47. Then punters could have sold at 44 or bought at 47, allowing earlier bets to be closed out at a profit or a loss. A punter who had sold at 19 could have changed his mind and bought at the new offer price of 47 for the same stake per run. In this case he would have made a loss of 28 runs multiplied by his stake per run, but would have had no further liability unless he laid another bet.

Hansie Cronje can easily claim never to have tried to "fix" the result of a match, but there are lots of cricket markets that people can bet on which are open to corruption. And although information is still important to the bookies, in spread betting, bribing a player would benefit punters more.

As well as the simple result, markets are made not only in how many runs a batsman will get, but how many runs the team will score, how many wides will be bowled, and how many wickets a bowler will get in a match.

When a spread betting firm give a market they do not knowwhether people will buy or sell, so they do not know whether they want the batsman to get out or make lots of runs. Because the betting is live and the prices can change with every run scored, their position may also change as punters continue to bet.

However, if a group of big punters were to bribe a player, they could tell him to get out below the level of their bet and so make potentially huge amounts of money.

Because the prices are constantly on the move it becomes an almost undetectable crime. For example, when a batsman is 100 not out, his spread price will be around 127-130. He promptly gets out, so sellers at 127 make 27 runs profit. Bet £10,000 a run and collect £270,000. And who will accuse a centurion of being a cheat?

However, Graham Cowdrey, the former Kent cricketer who now works for Sporting Index, the country's largest sports spread-betting firm, said: "Of course there is scope for cheating, but it needs the compliance of the players, or a player, and never have we seen any betting in cricket that suggests that. We would soon be able to tell because of the betting patterns. Certainly, in England there has never been a suggestion of corruption."

The most important fact is that any level of corruption in the sport needs the players. Without them it will not work.

The investigations are continuing and Cronje has admitted to passing on information, much like the Australians Shane Warne and Mark Waugh did five years ago. The bookies are currently taking the blame, but the spotlight should equally be on the already highly-paid players. Without their co-operation and greed, there is no corruption. Sadly for cricket, it is that simple.

Iain Fletcher's diary of a year in the life of a spread better will be published by Greenwater on 23 October