The Ashes gets under way on Thursday as England host Australia at Edgbaston - read Richard Mann's full series preview here.
I am struggling to remember a build up to an Ashes series where the two sides were quite so close in the betting and quotes of 10/11 for England to win the series and 17/10 Australia look just about right.
Back in 2015, Australia arrived on these shores as heavy favourites, having won the previous meeting between the two sides 5-0, but their batsman proved ill-equipped to cope with England's excellent seam attack with Stuart Broad and James Anderson helping England regain the Ashes courtesy of a 3-2 scoreline.
Fast forward two years, Australia were again strong favourites to regain the famous urn when they hosted the touring England in 2017/2018 and the betting was this time proven correct, Steve Smith's side making hay on a plethora of flat batting pitches while the likes of Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc had too much pace and aggression for the visiting batting line-up.
Ashes series dates
- First Test (Aug 1-5)
Venue: Edgbaston, Birmingham
- Second Test (Aug 14-18)
Venue: Lord's, London,
- Third Test (Aug 22-26)
Venue: Headingley, Leeds
- Fourth Test (Sept 4-8)
Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester
- Fifth Test (Sept 12-16)
Venue: The Oval, London
Another two years on, much has changed for both outfits with Australia finally starting to recover from the ball-tampering scandal that saw Tim Paine take over as captain following bans to Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancfroft while England, minus the now-retired Alastair Cook, have World Cup hero Ben Stokes available for Ashes cricket again having missed the Australia tour due to his much-publicised court appearance.
With Smith and Warner now firmly back in the Australian fray and the likes of Broad and Anderson still going strong for England, everything is in place for an exciting and closely-contested Ashes series.
While neither side boasts the same level of quality or depth as in previous meetings - the famous 2005 series the obvious benchmark - each has one or two modern-day greats within their ranks and man to man, it is hard to escape the feeling that these two outfits are fairly evenly matched in conditions that ought to suit two strong bowling attacks.
In terms of preparation, the picture is even more murky with both sides having spent the early part of the summer chasing World Cup glory in the 50-over format before turning their attentions to The Ashes.
A sloppy display when beating Ireland at Lord's last week will have given England captain Joe Root plenty to ponder but Australia's intra-squad match at the Ageas Bowl only fuelled the argument that for all they boast a fearsome pace attack that has plenty of depth, their batting is vulnerable.
Looking further back, England's Test form remains hard to assess and even harder to predict, a fine home series win against India last summer followed by a touchstone victory in Sri Lanka before they suffered a chastening defeat in the West Indies only a few months later.
Not that Australia can offer any stronger claims having lost to Pakistan in Dubai and India at home before beating a weak Sri Lankan side when last playing in whites at the beginning of this year.
England's fragile top three of Rory Burns, Jason Roy and Joe Denly seem likely to be outgunned by their more experienced Australian counterparts with Warner's strong returns in the World Cup and Usman Khawaja's elegant stroke play at number three giving the tourists the edge at the top of the order, for all England will bank on their much-vaunted middle order redressing the balance, just as they have done so many times before.
Their respective sides will look towards Root and Smith to score heavily at number four and it was the Australian's 687 runs at an average of 137.40 in the last Ashes series that proved one of the crucial factors in deciding it, Root's 378 runs another admirable effort but lacking the big hundreds along the way that were needed to put England in match-winning positions.
With Jofra Archer's arrival to international cricket meaning England can now match Australia's extra pace, both sides are more than capable of taking 20 wickets regularly and as such, it is hard to imagine either side running away with this series, for all the Test matches themselves have the potential to be one-sided if either side is able to put a big first innings score on the board, get ahead of the game and then exert pressure on the opposition batting line-up.
Things could well be decided by a crucial toss of a coin or how a bad session is managed, particularly with the bat, when wickets are falling and conditions are in favour of the excellent bowling attacks on show. Neither side has impressed in such instances over the last 18 months but limiting damage and avoiding regular collapses is what both camps will be desperate to avoid.
As such, England to win 3-2 at 7/1 and Australia to win 3-2 at 9/1 are perfectly plausible options for those looking for a long-term play but I'm happy to explore options in some of the other markets.
The obvious starting point is Australian spearhead Cummins, the leading wicket-taker on either side in the 2017/2018 Ashes series and someone who has appeared destined for greatness ever since taking seven wickets on his Test debut as a teenager against South Africa in Johannesburg back in 2011.
Injuries hampered his progress thereafter but he appears to be over them now and has developed into a fantastic operator capable of delivering quick, long spells with unwavering accuracy.
Not a big swinger of the ball, Cummins prefers to hit the splice hard and operate in the channel much in the same way Glenn McGrath did on his many successful trips to England.
Having returned to Test cricket very much in the shadows of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, Cummins has grown into the role of attack leader over the last 18 months as a loss of form hindered Starc against India last winter and Hazlewood struggled to offer the same threat when conditions weren't tilted in his favour.
Cummins, however, has continued to thrive, following his aforementioned Ashes exploits by taking 22 wickets in South Africa and then 28 wickets combined in the subsequent series against India and Sri Lanka where he became Paine's most valuable bowling asset.
In fact, since the start of 2018 Cummins has taken 58 wickets at an average of 18.77, just below an impressive overall career record of 94 wickets at 22.02.
Now close to the peak of his powers, Cummins can currently lay claim to being the leading fast bowler in the world and with his body finally starting to hold up to the demands of Test cricket, he is the confident choice at 12/5 to finish the series as the leading Australian bowler.
Following an impressive World Cup, Starc has to be respected but his exploits in white-ball cricket continue to overshadow his Test performances, so much so that he is under strong pressure for his place from Peter Siddle and, more significantly, James Pattinson.
The latter is a wonderful talent who, like Cummins, has seen his exciting start to international cricket curtailed by a spate of injuries but he is fit again and, crucially, has built up vast knowledge of English conditions via two stints in county cricket at Nottinghamshire.
Pattinson is a genuine strike bowler and though he might have to sit out the series opener, he shouldn't have to wait long for his chance and the likes of Starc and Hazlewood could both find their spots in jeopardy, only increasing the probability of Cummins finishing the series at the top of Australian wickets chart.
Less straightforward is the top England bowler market which is headed by James Anderson, expected to be fit following a calf injury that ruled him out of last week's victory over Ireland at Lord's.
Though Anderson will be 37 years of age by the start of the series, he remains England's most valued bowling weapon, particularly at home, and his performances over the last year and more recently with Lancashire this summer would suggest he is as good as ever.
Nevertheless, Root will be mindful of the fact that he will want to have Anderson's services for all five Test matches and with those to be played in little over six weeks, don't be surprised to see Anderson looked after by his skipper from time to time.
With a number of selection quandaries surrounding the remaining fast bowling spots, I can't resist a play on Moeen Ali to finish the series as England's leading bowler at 16/1.
In their last Test series against the West Indies during the winter, Ali topped England's bowling charts with 14 wickets and despite only playing two matches, he picked up 12 wickets against India last summer, playing a vital role in helping his side win that series.
While his batting may not be quite what it was, his off-spin bowling continues to evolve and crucially, the prospect of bowling at Australia's army of left-handers is the reason Jack Leach wasn't considered for the first Test match.
Ali is a terrific bowler to left-handers and with Australia's squad so packed with them that it could mean they field as many as seven in a side, he will be disappointed if he isn't able to play a big part in a series that is being played at the end of an English summer where squares are entitled to be getting a little worn and tired.
His price is plain wrong and he must be backed accordingly along with Tim Paine at 33/1 for top Australian series batsman.
Former captain Smith rightly heads the betting at 2/1 in this market but I'm not sure he's been quite at his brilliant best since returning from his ball-tampering ban. He certainly looked off the pace in the IPL and was solid if not unspectacular at the World Cup.
He loves a fight and is proven in these conditions but his price reflects that while Warner still remains vulnerable to the moving ball, a weakness England are sure to do their best to exploit.
Chris Woakes exposed that vulnerability when dismissing the Australian opener in the World Cup semi-final, as did India earlier in the tournament, and Anderson and Broad will be keen to give his technique a real working over when let loose with the Dukes ball.
At 33/1, Paine looks a sporting bet for a number of reasons, chiefly because he is an excellent player who is continually underrated and boasts a career average of 35.14, a record not too dissimilar to that of his English counterpart Jonny Bairstow who finds himself as short as 4/1 to top England's run charts for the series.
Paine averaged close to 50 in the most recent Ashes series Down Under so won't fear England and more importantly, he handled the moving ball and a potent pace attack really well when making 215 runs at an average 43.00 when Australia toured South Africa little over a year ago.
Given all that went on in that tour and how Paine was thrust into the captaincy following the ball-tampering scandal, it was a fine effort and should Anderson and Broad claim early casualties with the new ball over the next few weeks, he might be well placed to perform more repair jobs.
As a right-hander and a good player of spin, Ali off-spin ought not to cause him as many problems as his left-handed batting colleagues and for all Smith is the obvious choice in this market, I'm happy to play at 33/1 for small stakes while keeping him in mind on a game-by-game basis if Australia are asked to bat first on a surface that might provide earlier assistance to England's seamers.
Jos Buttler appealed in the same market for England at 12/1 but his batting position isn't set in stone right now and should Bairstow's slump in form continue, the Lancashire man could easily find himself with the gloves again.
As such, and on the back of a World Cup campaign where he wasn't quite at his best, he just misses out on the staking plan ahead of an Ashes series which is hard to work out, but guaranteed to deliver.