The Ashes decider at The Oval may well be the most eagerly anticipated contest in recent memory, for fans, media and the players themselves. But the fifth Test will have a lot more riding on it than just the destination of the famous urn or bragging rights for the next couple of years. Informed estimates suggest that punters around the world may have staked well over US$70 million on the result of the Test - and thus the series - beginning today.
The sheer volume of money at stake would also explain why an Australian player was approached by a bookie after the Lord's Test, as revealed by Cricinfo.
Betfair, the leading P2P (person to person) betting exchange based in the UK, had already matched bets worth US$4.8 million by Wednesday afternoon. Given that Betfair generally accounts for nearly half of the total volume logged in the UK, the total betting on the winner of the Ashes series will far exceed the figure of US$10 million by the time the first ball is bowled at the Oval. And though cricket may not yet have taken off on the continent, betting on it is surprisingly energetic, with approximately US$3 million placed on the result.
However, these figures are dwarfed by those coming out of the illegal betting market in India, as befits the financial centre of the game. It is estimated that each of the preceding four Ashes Tests has seen between US$30 million and US$41 million (Rs 150-200 crore) wagered on the result. For the series win (called 'cup betting' in India), those figures increase to between US$50-61 million (Rs 250-300 crore). Indian bookies, like their English counterparts, have sensed the series shift in momentum towards Australia; on Wednesday afternoon, the odds on Australia winning at The Oval on the Indian market were 2.40, England winning it 4 to 1 and a draw at 1.25. Betfair (on Thursday, hours before the start), offered odds of an Australian win at 2.42, England 5.2 and a draw 2.5.
These amounts are restricted only to match and series winner, however, and once the Test begins much more will be wagered. For most in India, the popular bets are on the result, and about 95% of the estimated 1.5 million regular punters place their money on this. However, some bookies and very big punters bet huge amounts between themselves on what is called "fancy sauda". This can be on anything, from estimating innings scores, top scorers or wicket-takers and staking from Rs 100-10,000 per run against the difference in team totals. It can take in small details, such as who will bowl the next over from which end and how many runs will be scored in an over, or off the next delivery. Putting a realistic figure on these transactions is difficult and though there are very few punters involved in this, the stakes can often be very high.
Bookmakers, such as Ladbrokes and William Hill, used to stop taking bets after the toss in any match. But once they discovered how bookies from the subcontinent actually made more money after matches had begun, on fancy sauda, they too embraced the system. Thus 'In Play' betting - placing bets when the Test begins, where odds are re-worked with every ball bowled, every run scored - now accounts for the largest chunk of betting on any contest.
Though the figures for the last Test seem impressive, the decider is actually thought to be a low-volume contest in India. There are two reasons for this. One, this is a decider, so the winner (if it does not end in a draw) of this Test and the series is going to be the same, and since there are bets already riding on the series winner category, it does not make much sense for them to increase the ante. Two, New Zealand's series with Sri Lanka has diverted the hearts and wallets of punters not only in the subcontinent, but also to an extent in Europe, where bets over US$5 million had already been placed by the second day of the Test. In India, sources estimate that nearly US$80 million (Rs400 crore) are already placed on the first Test, and nearly US$60 million (Rs300 crore) on the series winner.
Prakash Gosavi is a Mumbai-based journalist, specialising in sports betting