England cricketers defy normal rules

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Mike Atherton's astonishing rearguard action in the second Test a week ago may have done psychological wonders for his team, but the mental state of some punters who indulge in high-risk "spread" betting was hardly improved by events in Johannesburg.

The opening quote on Mark Ramprakash's runs total in the series was 260- 280. Anyone who "bought" the spread for, say, pounds 5 per run, was backing Ramprakash to beat the spread, with a return of pounds 5 for every run over 280. The downside, however, was a loss of pounds 5 for every run less. After his latest debacle, Ramps has a grand total of 13 and seems unlikely to keep his place in the side, leaving pounds 5 buyers staring down the long, loaded barrel of a pounds 1,335 loss. The pitfalls of spread betting have rarely been so obvious.

Anyone who "sold" Ramprakash, of course, was sending out party invitations as soon as Brian McMillan removed his middle stump, with a 247-point profit all but guaranteed. Most punters, though, will prefer to keep their stress level to a minimum and stick to the fixed odds when the third Test begins on Thursday.

Not that the bookmakers are giving much away. On their latest form, it seems doubtful that either side is capable of bowling out the other twice in five days, and the draw is a clear favourite with all three major firms (Coral are top-price at 5-4).

Any momentum, though, surely lies with England, so it is surprising that odds as long as 13-5 are available with William Hill. The English bowlers, painfully short of match practice before the second Test, should be a little closer to their best by Thursday.

The normal rules about not backing English teams in any sport - patriotic punters make them poor value - have been eroded in international cricket by years of failure, and at 13-5 they are now a very fair bet.

THIRD TEST (Hills): evens draw, 15-8 South Africa, 13-5 England. Series odds: 6-5 South Africa, 15-8 draw, 11-5 England.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP PLAY-OFF, Anfield, Wednesday (Ladbrokes): 10-11 Netherlands, 12-5 Republic of Ireland, 9-4 draw. To qualify: 4-9 Netherlands, 13-8 Republic of Ireland.