The betting bonanza: Putting money where mouths are

Some £50m is riding on the result of the Ashes. Nick Townsend reports on the rise of the gambler
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The Independent Online

This has not merely been the most engaging Ashes series but the most compelling betting vehicle, too, and particularly for those who take a view - or, to use the technical jargon, "take a position" - after every wicket or other significant fluctuation in fortunes.

The Fourth Test is already the summer's biggest betting event for the market leaders, Betfair, with £29 million being "matched" on the result alone. The company predict that will be overtaken by this finale as the bulls and bears of this market get to work.

"The cricket hasn't knocked horseracing off the top as leading sport in terms of total betting turnover, but on days when the cricket has been on everything else has taken a back seat," says Mark Davies of Betfair, Channel 4's major sponsors for their Ashes coverage. "There's been an enormous amount of interest during any given Test. There's massive trading of positions all day. People have their computers on next to their televisions. They bet literally hundreds of times in the course of a match."

Previously, the most attractive betting propositions for exchange punters had been the overall Premiership market and the last US election, which yielded £18m of matched bets. However, the climax of the Third Test at Old Trafford, scene of that study in obduracy from Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee which ultimately denied England victory, saw the most feverish activity, with 50,000 bets struck during the closing overs.

For the uninitiated, the terminology can be as confusing as cricket jargon, but exchanges basically match prices between punters, in the same way that the Stock Exchange does for shares. "Of course, you have to read the game right, but the really astute punters could have made a lot of money," says Davies.

The system allows punters to lay and take prices themselves rather than accept those set by a bookmaker. The conventional bookmakers have expressed disapproval of this brazen young upstart intruding on their domain, but they too have experienced the benefit of the shifting sands of this Ashes summer, when predictability has become an alien concept.

"This is already the biggest betting Test series ever, with up to a record £50m riding on the outcome of the five-match series," says William Hill's Graham Sharpe, king of the weird and wacky bet. He has offered one punter odds of 500-1 that "after this series Shane Warne will desert Australia to apply for British citizenship and play for England against the Aussies next time around". Somehow you imagine William Hill's money is safe.

Similarly, the series has provided a windfall for the spread-betting companies, like Sporting Index, who offer punters the opportunity to bet higher or lower on such predictions as "Kevin Pietersen will have to wait 120 overs before he takes a catch" or "During the final Test, four sessions will be interrupted by rain or bad light".

But it is the betting-exchange clients who relish the capricious nature of a closely matched game lasting up to five days. Some punters trade large amounts. "They don't get out of bed for less than five grand," says Davies. Equally, there are those who can recycle £100 all day. For example, Davies recalls one punter who during the England-France Rugby World Cup semi-final placed £246,000 worth of bets, but whose outlay was only £400. He backed and laid throughout the match.

This series has been a boon for those who saw enough in the hosts to retain their faith, despite that crushing First Test reverse at Lord's. "You could have backed England at the equivalent of 14-1 for the series at one stage during the Second Test, and more recently laid them at around 4-1 on," adds Davies. Anyone who has done so would be highly content as rain wiped out more play yesterday, and the draw, together with England's retrieval of the Ashes, increasingly beckoned.