'It was so hot we couldn't blink ... the moisture in our eyes had dried'

'It can fly through… It's like England on steroids' (1:34)

Mark Butcher, Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Swann reveal why the conditions in Australia make it so tough for touring sides (1:34)

Think of a Test match in Australia, and your mind's eye will probably conjure up images of rock-hard pitches, fast bowlers slathered in zinc cream, and sunlight so bright that you can feel the burn through your TV screen.

And while this can often be the case, the reality of an Ashes tour is that the five Test venues are spread across an island the size of Europe, meaning that each contest tends to be conducted within its own microclimate.

And so, in the space of a two-month campaign, a touring team can be exposed to the tropical humidity of up-country Brisbane, the dry-roasting heat of the Waca in Perth, and everything else in between - not least at Melbourne, the most bamboozling venue of them all, where the Boxing Day Test has often been staged in dank, green conditions that can make Headingley seem like the Sahara.

These, in turn, create a set of pitch conditions that can stretch any squad - pace and bounce on one ground, spin and sluggishness at the next - which, when allied to Australia's enduring reputation for Test excellence, help to explain why England Ashes wins Down Under are so few and far between.

"One of the reasons that Australian cricket has always been pretty strong is that you need a team with all those bases covered," says ESPN's Mark Butcher, who played on two Ashes tours in 1998-99 and 2002-03. "You need good batsmen against new ball, hot strokemakers to push the game on and buy yourself time, and the attack needs to have everything. Quicks, accuracy, and hopefully a spin bowler to unlock the door."

And, despite having had three warm-up games in which to lay out their game-plans, the calibre of the opposition that England have encountered on the tour is unlikely to have given them much insight into what Australia plan to throw at them when the series gets properly underway at the Gabba on November 23.

"I can see what Australia will do," says Michael Vaughan, England's former Ashes-winning captain turned BT Sport commentator. "They will throw some Tom Noddy's out to play against them - no pace, pitches slow - then arrive in Brisbane - rock hard, bouncy, pace - good luck. The Aussies aren't going to throw them any quality so they've got to hammer those teams, beat them well, and make it as tough as they possibly can in their own practice."

To be fair, the boot would be on the other foot if Australia were the team warming up for the Ashes in England - in fact, it invariably is - but the bigger concern for Joe Root's men is that they will need to be fully up to speed in less than a week's time in order to surmount the unique challenge of Brisbane's "Gabbatoir".

"The Gabba is the best cricket wicket in the country," says Graeme Swann, an Ashes winner in Australia in 2010-11 and now a BT Sport pundit. "There's always a result possible in Australia. Most games are a result these days because players can't bat for five days, they want to go home after three hours."

It was more like a case of wanting to be home after three balls on England's 2013-14 visit to Brisbane, when a certain Mitchell Johnson took advantage of the Gabba's juicy conditions to rout England's batting in the first of what turned into five crushing defeats. And for Kevin Pietersen, who played in the last of his six Ashes campaigns that winter, the ferocity of Australia's cricket will always trump any variety in the venues.

"I'm not so sure it's the Ashes environment, the hostile environment, I think it's more the cricket that's being played," Pietersen says "The Aussies are up you, they're at you. On our last trip there, when you've got all your tail-enders there scared to go and bat and scared to face Mitchell Johnson, it's the cricket that's bothering you."

If, by some miracle, England can emerge from the Gabba unscathed, as they did so memorably on the 2010-11 tour, then a completely different challenge awaits at the Adelaide Oval. Root's men have played one floodlit Test to date - a somewhat underwhelming affair against West Indies at Edgbaston this summer - but as preparation goes, that match will be about as much use as the soporific warm-up that took place with the pink ball in Adelaide earlier this week.

Not that the change of format will necessarily be a bad thing for England, for Adelaide's traditional day-time Test matches have tended to be among the more attritional affairs that touring teams can encounter - often with searing temperatures and spin bowling to the fore on a surface that can offer little to toiling fielding teams.

"At Brisbane, it can fly through - swing, seam, almost like England but on steroids," says Butcher. "But, at Adelaide, unless you've got a world-class spinner in your side, it can be a really tough place to take 20 wickets.

"I remember playing there in 1998-99, nearly 50 degrees, a hot wind from the interior and it was extraordinarily uncomfortable, to the point where blinking was difficult because the moisture in your eyes dried up the second you headed outdoors.

"Batting-wise it can be difficult too, because you have to be slightly attritional in the way you play, or have someone like a Kevin Pietersen who can really take the bowlers on. You're trying to take time out of the game when you bat and then need to have a genius to unlock the door with the ball."

That genius, in 2010-11, was none other than Swann, who was presented with a chance to seal victory in the second Test of the series, and duly fronted up with five second-innings scalps in a memorable innings win.

"If you go into a Test thinking it's a 500 pitch, you're a waste of time for your team," he says. "We bowled Australia out for 240 in 2010 because we believed we could. We could have looked at that pitch and thought, 550, we're screwed, and if any of our bowlers had thought that, it would have been."

Then, after Adelaide, the two teams hot-foot it across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth, a venue whose reputation for pace and bounce has transcended into folklore.

"Only two places come close," says Butcher. "Sabina Park [in Jamaica], like glass in the old days, but the ball ripped through, and it could be uneven as well so it wasn't a great deal of fun. And Barbados.

"There's a great tradition of quick bowlers in both places and the reason was the pitches were quick and bouncy. That produces the cricket that crowds want to see, because for all that the batsmen don't like it very much, a bit of physical danger and the risk of someone getting cleaned up every once in a while keeps people on the edge of their seat."

Vaughan, however, isn't convinced that the Waca is quite the pacy venue it once was. "I think it's a bit of kidology," he says. "South Africa played there last year, there was spin, a bit of reverse swing, it was a completely different surface. There's a bit of extra tennis-ball bounce on the first day that you have to watch out for, but it's the psyche and intimidation that the Aussies will talk about, and the press will big it up too."

And yet, as if to prove what a challenge that triple whammy of venues can present, the Ashes is often over as a contest by this stage of the tour - England have been down and out after the Perth Test in three of the last four tours, dating back to 2002-03.

"I always feel that, if you can get to Melbourne and still be in the series, you've got a great chance," says Vaughan. "It's intimidating because of the size of the ground but it's not got the pace. There's generally a bit of movement there for the seamers - it can have four seasons in one day, so the conditions can help England."

"Melbourne is the flattest of the lot now," says Butcher. "Drop-in pitches have taken some of the intrigue out of the cricket at the MCG. But Sydney is one of the great Test-match venues anywhere in the world. You can have swing, pace and bounce on day one and, by day five, it's a raging turner. It's a really fabulous place to play cricket."

Who knows how the series will have played out by the fifth Test, but Butcher is adamant that England will not be able to blame the heat in Australia's kitchen if they have been unable to keep themselves in contention by then.

"I don't physical conditioning is ever an excuse for touring teams anymore," he says. "I feel sorrier for the Sri Lankans coming over to England in May and playing up in the north-east than our guys going over to Australia.

"Yes, you can get some hot days, but I'd venture that Sri Lanka and India at certain times of the year are more difficult."