SPORTS BETTING: Nocturnal lure of the spread firms

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The first five days of cricket's World Cup have seen matches between serious sides and no-hopers (with England apparently cast in the latter role by their loss to New Zealand).

For the average bookmaker, such encounters hold little appeal (no one for instance will have wanted to back either England at 1-20 or the United Arab Emirates at 10-1 before yesterday's game. Spread betting firms, however, are very much in their element, since for them the result is of secondary importance to the manner in which it was achieved.

At first, the quotes, such as "UAE innings 150-160" are disconcertingly unfamiliar, but with a little practice no more confusing than one of the more obscure fixed-odds prices such as 95-40. In effect the spread firm is estimating that UAE will make 155, and the punter must decide whether they have erred on the side of generosity or caution.

Backers who believe the UAE will perform beyond expectation will "buy" - the trading-floor language also becomes familiar with practice - at 160 for, say, pounds 1 a run. A final score of 200 therefore wins them pounds 40. The downside, though, is that if UAE are skittled out for 100, they lose pounds 60.

Since the quote moves with events, just like a share price, some of the uncertainty over winnings or losses is removed by the ability to get out of a bet, either taking a profit or cutting a loss. However, spread betting is not for the faint-hearted.

The main firms have opened from 3am for England's matches. "We have people betting from pounds 1 a run up to pounds 50 a run," Neil Channing of City Index says, "but there's plenty of people who would like to bet more." Clearly there are punters who will risk a small fortune in the middle of the night and then, no doubt, eat a hearty breakfast. They deserve our respect.