'Pitchsiding' bets no sure thing at Cricket World Cup

HAGLEY OVAL: Police help the ICC make sure pitchsiding is taken very seriously.
IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax NZ

HAGLEY OVAL: Police help the ICC make sure pitchsiding is taken very seriously.

On Saturday, a group of men were ejected from Hagley Oval during the Cricket World Cup opener between New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Their transgression? Reporting what was happening in the match to people who were not there. Michael Wright looks at the betting world limbo of pitchsiding.

The men stood out. They had laptops and cellphones and were paying too much attention to them. Who takes a laptop to the cricket? Pitchsiders. People who relay real time information overseas before delayed broadcasts, allowing gamblers to manipulate bets on what will happen, or already has.

The practice, also called courtsiding (it first emerged in tennis), is not illegal, but the gambling markets it serves, mostly in India, usually are. The International Cricket Council (ICC) prohibits it in the fine print of its match tickets and would rather avoid the unsavoury association.

Police help the ICC make sure of it. Specially-trained plain-clothes officers are patrolling New Zealand matches through their mandate with the ICC and the Government to help deliver a safe and proper tournament. Essentially it is the same powers they have in evicting a drunk person, but it speaks of the seriousness with which pitchsiding is treated. All the men kicked out of Hagley Oval on Saturday were banned from other World Cup matches and face arrest if they try to gain entry. Past this, however, they are not in criminal trouble.

Pitchsiding has nothing to do with match fixing, nor is it about isolated spot betting. There is no market where you can know, say, that Brendon McCullum is out, and place a bet on his imminent dismissal before someone on the other side of the world finds out.

"Bookies are too smart for that," UK-based betting industry consultant Scott Ferguson said.

"They know there's broadcast delays. Little things like that are so manipulate-able. If it's over a longer period it's much harder to manipulate."

Instead, the Indian market favours run brackets. Typically, how many runs will be scored in a five or six-over period. A bracket will have pre-match odds which change when play reaches that point based on how a team is faring. A common bet is the over-under: a bookie proposes how many runs they think will be scored and attaches odds. You bet on the real total being higher or lower.

"Let's say you've got McCullum and [Kane] Williamson in," Ferguson said.

"Let's say it's around the 20-over mark. Your line might be 47.5 runs [what the bookie thinks will be scored] because they're going well. If that suddenly changes, if there's a four or a six, that figure goes higher. If it's at a state in the match where the bowlers have got them tied down . . . that might really drop down to, say, 23-and-a-half. If a bloke then goes for five wides [ie a lot of runs off one ball against the run of play], that's a big difference."

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The difference being that you place a bet before the bookie, or, more likely, the algorithm on his computer, knows about the five wides and adjusts the odds. Those runs would likely push up their pick significantly, so you place an "overs" bet on 23.5 runs and an "unders" one on the soon-to-be-calculated higher pick. This creates a "middle" where, if the real score lands in between the two amounts, you get paid both ways.

It's far from a sure thing - more stacking the odds in your favour - and bookmakers can use the information themselves to eliminate risk. The trouble for the authorities who frown on it is it's hard for them to do anything except . . . frown on it.

"No government in the world is going to create a law penalising people for being there and seeing things in real time," Ferguson said.

The ICC, however, can impose whatever rules it likes on the Cricket World Cup or any other event it runs, which is where the fine print on your ticket comes in.

But that is really as far as it goes. The New Zealand Government amended the Crimes Act last year to allow prosecution for match fixing, which has zero effect on someone sitting at the cricket, talking to someone in another country on the phone and telling them what just happened.

The TAB would not comment on Saturday's incident, saying only that pitchsiding, "while not illegal in New Zealand . . . may be a breach of competition rules".

That betting is illegal in India (much of it is above board, just unlicensed, Ferguson said) is immaterial.

"[Pitchsiders] are not committing an offence in New Zealand," Christchurch lawyer and cricket commentator Garth Gallaway said.

 

 - The Press

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