Stewart: Gabba Test is vital

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Jason Gillespie & Alec Stewart

Alec Stewart is bowled en route to a pair at the Gabba in 2003. “The first Test in Brisbane is crucial for me,” Stewart revealed

Former England captain Alec Stewart believes Andrew Strauss’ side will retain the Ashes if they can avoid defeat in the first Test at Brisbane.

Strauss and company will head to Australia next month aiming to become the first England team since the 1986-87 tourists to return from the Antipodes with the little urn.

The last time England achieved that they were successful in the Gabba opener, which has since proven a graveyard ground for their series hopes.

England have lost three of their past four visits to Brisbane by large margins and Stewart, who suffered the heartbreak of three unsuccessful tours Down Under, knows the importance of starting strong.

“The first Test in Brisbane is crucial for me,” he said. “Australia have a very good record at the Gabba. They have stamped their authority over a series in that match many times before.

“I think if England can escape with a draw from that match then I think they will keep the Ashes.”

The veteran of 133 Tests also warned England of the importance of landing a telling early blow - something they have failed to achieve in recent visits.

Steve Harmison memorably bowled a first-ball wide to second slip four years ago, while in 2002-03 Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden hit hundreds on an opening day that also saw Simon Jones suffer an horrific knee injury in the outfield.

“I think it’s not just that first day, but the first session that is crucial. England need to put a marker down,” Stewart added.

“You think back over the years with Harmison’s first ball and in 1994 when Michael Slater hit the first two balls for four. Australia set the tone early in those games, England were already on the back foot.

“England will be aware of that. They will know that first Test match is vitally important.”

Justin Langer, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison & Paul Collingwood

Steve Harmison sends the opening ball of the 2006/07 Ashes to second slip. "England need to put a marker down,” Stewart said

Despite his warnings, Stewart is confident that England can end their 24-year wait for success Down Under, claiming yesterday’s announcement of the 16-man squad proved the strength of the current side.

“I think the squad has all bases covered,” said Stewart. “They have a strong batting line-up with a number of the players having over 50 caps,” he added.

“There’s a good wicketkeeper-batsman and the bowling line-up has a couple of match-winners which you need because Test cricket is about taking 20 wickets.

“There’s talk of needing five bowlers, but they have Graeme Swann who is a match-winner and that helps offset the fact there is no all-rounder in the Freddie Flintoff mould.

“With Jimmy Anderson as well you have a couple of ‘banker’ bowlers. I think they can afford to go into the Test matches with four bowlers.”

Australia’s aura as a world-beating force has diminished in recent years and they suffered their only defeat in 30 home series against South Africa two years ago.

England have, however, lost nine of their past 10 Tests Down Under and Stewart is wary of underestimating Australia - especially with their skipper Ricky Ponting still smarting from becoming the first captain in recent memory to lose two Ashes series.

“It’s our best shot to win the Ashes in Australia because we haven’t won it over there since 1986-87,” he said.

“I am quietly confident of England’s chances. England are in possession of the Ashes so Australia will be hurting. England must respect that, it’s still a very good Australian team.

“They are proud of the home record. It is not easy to beat them in their own backyard.

“It could also be Ricky Ponting’s last Ashes series and he won’t want to be the captain that lost three series against England.

“He’s lost two series in England and to lose in Australia is unthinkable from his point of view. He will be very determined.”