Through most of the last two decades, the result of an Ashes series in Australia has been a foregone conclusion even before the first ball has been bowled. England last won a series in Australia in 1986-87, by a 2-1 margin. Since then, they've lost five in a row, and each emphatically. In 25 Tests during this period, England have lost 18 and won three, one of which was a dead rubber.
However, there's reason to believe things could be different this time around, as much due to England's excellent recent form as Australia's problems with form and fitness. England are ranked higher in the ICC Test rankings, and have a better win-loss ratio in the last two years, winning 12 and losing four, to Australia's 12-6. In the corresponding two-year period before the previous Ashes series in Australia, Australia had won 15 matches and lost only two. Both those losses had come against England in 2005, but apart from that Australia had won almost everything, including beating South Africa in five out of six Tests, home and away, in 2005-06.
The batting and bowling stats between these two teams have never been this close recently, and that must surely fill England with hope. (The fact that Australia have named 17 players in the squad for the first Test shows how uncertain they are about their best combination.) In these last couple of years, there is little to choose between the overall numbers of the two teams, but one unusual number is the ratio of centuries to fifties for Australia - that's an aspect they're normally very good at, but during this period they've only managed to convert 24 out of 93 scores of 50-plus into hundreds; England have converted 27 out of 86.
The Numbers Game: England's finest opportunity in two decades | Regulars | Cricinfo Magazine | ESPN Cricinfo