Australia have home advantage going into the 2017-18 Ashes series, but several pundits have suggested that the series is too close to call, with neither team having an overwhelming advantage. And while it is true that England were drubbed 5-0 the last time they toured here, in 2013-14, in terms of recent form there is little to separate the two.
Australia's worry over the last 18 months has been their batting, while England seem to have a few holes in their top order as well. In terms of recent results, England have a slight edge: since April 2016, they have a 10-9 win-loss record compared to Australia's 6-8. However, that is also because England have played two home seasons during this period to Australia's one: they have been 9-4 at home and 1-5 away, while Australia were 4-2 at home and 2-6 away.
The comparison is made easier by the fact that both teams have played similar opposition sides recently. In these last 18 months, both Australia and England have played at home against South Africa and Pakistan, and away in India and Bangladesh. Australia had a 6-5 record in these matches, compared to England's 6-8: they lost 0-4 to India and only managed a 2-2 draw against Pakistan, while Australia did better against these teams but lost at home to South Africa. In these four series, there is little to choose between the batting averages of the two teams, but Australia were the better bowling unit, averaging 29.14 to England's 33.23. (Apart from these four series, Australia toured Sri Lanka and lost 3-0 during this period, while England played home series versus Sri Lanka and West Indies, winning 2-0 and 2-1. These series skew the overall numbers in England's favour during this period.)
While the overall batting averages are almost the same in these series, the break-up by batting positions reveals the different strengths of these two teams. Australia's top five, which includes David Warner, Steven Smith, Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb, have pretty good numbers in these four series, with the top four slots all averaging in the mid- to late-40s. Smith has averaged 63.55 in these games, while Warner (45.04), Handsomb (49.07) and Khawaja (48.58) have also been impressive.
England's top five, on the other hand, struggled in these four series, with only Joe Root averaging more than 40. He averaged an outstanding 53.86, but next best was Alastair Cook at 39.62, followed by Moeen Ali (36.38) and Jonny Bairstow (34.10). Together, they managed only eight hundreds in 15 Tests, compared to Australia's 13 from 12. Among the failures for England in the top five positions in these series are Gary Ballance (304 runs in 15 innings), Keaton Jennings (294 from 12) and James Vince, who is slotted to bat at No. 3 in the Ashes. Vince has scored only 212 runs from 11 innings in his Test career, while batting at numbers four or five in those innings.
* At home v Pak and SA; away in Ind and Ban
In the lower-middle-order slots, though, England have been way better than their Australian counterparts: at Nos. 6, 7 and 8, they have averaged 39.29, compared to Australia's 20.98 in the four series. Australia's lower middle order has only managed seven 50-plus scores in 59 innings (one in 8.4 innings) while England's has notched up 23 in 84 (one every 3.7 innings). Despite the unavailability of Ben Stokes, England remain strong in those slots, thanks to the presence of Bairstow (833 runs in 18 innings), Moeen Ali (552 in 13) and Chris Woakes (281 in 13).
Australia, on the other hand, have struggled to overcome the poor form of Matthew Wade (263 runs in 16 innings). With Tim Paine drafted in as Wade's replacement, and Shaun Marsh back in the team and slotted to bat at six, much will depend on them and on Mitchell Starc to shore up Australia's lower order.
In terms of the bowling numbers, there is again little to choose between the pace attacks of these two teams in these four series: Australia's fast bowlers averaged 29.86 to England's 30.28. Nathan Lyon's form, though, means Australia have the better spin numbers during this period: their spinners average 28.36 to England's 35.25.
However, the stats for the lead spinners from both teams is fairly similar: Moeen has 57 wickets from 15 Tests at 31.64 to Lyon's 58 from 12 at 28.32. They are also the leading wicket-takers for their teams in these four series, but the fast bowlers from both teams have been in fine form too, with pretty similar stats: in these four series, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Woakes took a combined tally of 99 wickets at 25.15, while Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Jackson Bird took 101 wickets at 28.47.
* At home v Pak and SA; away in Ind and Ban
With so little to differentiate the teams, the one big advantage for Australia is the fact that they are playing at home. When the teams are otherwise so closely matched, home advantage - plus the absence of Ben Stokes - could make all the difference to the series outcome.