Roberts points the index finger

Stephen Fay at Lord's looks at the changing fortunes in a buyer's market
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The Independent Online
IF the trader at IG Index has judged it right, England will score enough runs today to set the West Indies a challenging target. He takes bets on what is known as the spread and when bad light stopped play his quote suggested that England would score between 280 and 300 in their second innings.

Since punters can bet and cash in at any time in an innings, the spread is an unusually sensitive indicator of changes in the state of the game. So when Graham Thorpe was felled by Courtney Walsh's beamer, the quote for England's score immediately fell by 15 points to 240-260. (When Brian Lara is out, the quote for the West Indies total falls by 65 runs: "I've never known a player be in for that much," says the trader.)

When Graeme Hick is hitting boundaries, the spread rises to 330-350. If that were to happen, and the West Indies needed 300 in the fourth innings, England ought to win. But don't bet on it.

The unknown factor is still the pitch and uncertainty about how it would play meant that the dealer was not doing much business before play: "If I were a punter, I'd want to wait and see." Along with everyone else at Lord's.

Andy Roberts, the West Indies cricket manager had complained that a number of his players had been hit on the fingers and the pitch was under- prepared. The inference of doctoring left the Lord's groundsman, Mike Hunt, feeling spectacularly disgruntled, and led to an inquiry by the match referee, John Reid.

Reid produced a curious statement towards the end of the afternoon, saying that, although he was satisfied that Roberts had not actually accused Hunt of doctoring the pitch, any statements about the quality of the wicket could lead to a breach of the code of conduct. Since he asserted that Roberts had done nothing wrong, it was odd that he should say he would take no further action on this occasion.

True, the hot sun on Thursday and Friday opened cracks on the pitch. Consequently, the bounce was sharp and uneven. But after years of flat wickets that help batsmen, here was an exciting, evenly balanced contest and the West Indies were complaining.

But the cloud cover and a 10-ton roller pacified the wicket and when the phones began to ring at IG Index, the spread was 310-317. By lunch, it had risen to 322-326, and when England's second innings began the spread was 255-275. Clearly the pitch was no longer the problem.

The spread betting phenomenon has not gone unnoticed in Wisden, which reports: "Cricket betting now has a more central place in the game than it has had since Napoleonic times."

Punters buy or sell runs as they would a futures price on a commodity market. Take yesterday's opening quote: if the punters thought the West Indies would score more than 285, they would take a long position at, say, pounds 2 a run. The West Indies' 324 would have won the punter pounds 78. If they had been out for 250, the loss would have been pounds 70.

Spread betting ought to have an irresistible attraction for England followers because you can bet on your team doing badly. But the tendency generally is the other way. "Since the clients want to see plenty of runs they go long," says the dealer.

There are three companies in the field and the bookmakers are ready to join, but it is a risky business: "It is not for a person who can only afford to lose a fiver. Our punters should be able to write a cheque for pounds 1,000," says Stuart Wheeler of IG Index.

Specialised knowledge is not necessarily a help. "Professional cricketers are notorious for getting it wrong," says Wheeler. Maybe so, but none of the IG Index clients is as big a gambler as Raymond Illingworth, or even John Major, who was watching yesterday from a box.