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30/11/2007 No.29
Dan Roebuck
Friday November 30, 2007
  Nobody fancies tourists but canny Cook can defy mighty Muralitharan

A year ago Britain's bookmakers were predicting a £30m industry-wide gamble on England's Ashes series against Australia. Twelve months on, betting on their three-match series in Sri Lanka can hardly be described as brisk.

With the first Test in Kandy starting early tomorrow some layers are forecasting turnover to be down by as much as half. However, with the action set to take place at a marginally more congenial time for UK punters, at least the betting-in-play markets should be strong.

Not surprisingly, Sri Lanka are the short-priced favourites to win the series, with 4-5 (general) the best price about the hosts. England are 3-1 (Sporting Odds and Totesport) with the drawn series 13-4 (Bet365).

Most of the ante-post money has come for the home side, with England relatively friendless. "It is a big ask for England and so far the vast majority of bets are on a Sri Lankan victory," said William Hill spokesman Rupert Adams. Hill's were a top-price 10-11 about the hosts until last week.

England were last successful in Sri Lanka in 2001, when, coming off the back of a series win in Pakistan, they came from one down to win 2-1. A repeat scoreline is available at 12-1 (general). The last time England played Tests there, however, the hosts secured a 1-0 series win courtesy of some sparkling spells from Muttiah Muralitharan and Dilhara Fernando on the fourth day of the final Test in Colombo. A 1-0 win for Sri Lanka this time around is priced at 6-1 (Ladbrokes and Totesport).

Patriotic punters will point to the fact that England won the recent one-day series in Sri Lanka at similar odds for proof that they can perform there, although it is worth remembering that Muralitharan did not play in the series. And although Sri Lanka performed poorly in Australia, England, beaten by India at home in their last Test series, are just too inconsistent to warrant support. My advice is to back the hosts. .

Murali's form is once again key to Sri Lanka's chances with the bookmakers unanimous in believing the spinner is almost certain to take most England wickets, despite returning poor figures in Australia (four for 400). He is 4-11 (general) to end the series as Sri Lanka's top wicket-taker and given that he averages seven per match against England on home soil it is difficult to back against him. And with the spinner fast approaching Shane Warne's world record of 708 Test wickets - he needs five more to overtake the Australian - bookmakers have been quick to price up the player who will become his 709th victim. Paddy Power makes Monty Panesar and Ryan Sidebottom 7-1 joint favourites with Kevin Pietersen 10-1 and Michael Vaughan 12-1.

One player who might cope well with Muralitharan is Alastair Cook and the opener looks a fair bet at 9-2 (Totesport) to be England's leading runscorer in the series. Pietersen is the 3-1 (Totesport) favourite in this market but Cook has already impressed in the warm-up games and will be buoyed by the domination enjoyed by Michael Hussey, a fellow left-hander, for Australia earlier this month. Cook is certain to play every Test and top-scored for England in the recent one-day series on the island. The in-form Kumar Sangakkara is the 9-4 (general) market leader to be Sri Lanka's top runscorer.

Panesar is the 9-4 favourite (Ladbrokes) to take most wickets for England and it seems likely the pitches will help the Northamptonshire spinner's cause. A better bet, however, might be to follow Matthew Hoggard on Sporting Index's Series Bowler Index. Here, 10 points are awarded for every wicket Hoggard takes with a 25-point bonus for a five-wicket haul in an innings. The spread is 118-128 and the advice is to buy. Hoggy is one of the few England players with Test experience in Sri Lanka and has the variation and nous to cause the home batsmen problems, as his eight-wicket haul in the last warm-up match earlier this week proved.

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