'We knew the team was rattled ... the bowlers were saying 'we are actually scared''

'Australia realise that The Gabba is their fortress' (1:59)

Graeme Swann, Michael Vaughan, Mark Butcher and some of current crop of players discuss what it is like to play an Ashes Test in Brisbane. (1:59)

As England's cricketers went through the motions in their final four-day warm-up in Townsville last week, they did so in the knowledge that nothing they have experienced comes close to replicating what awaits when the Ashes get underway in Brisbane on Thursday.

"We're going to be tested a hell of a lot more," said England's first centurion of the tour, Mark Stoneman - with "hell" being the operative word so far as the legend of the "Gabbatoir" is concerned. This infamous venue has been Australia's impenetrable fortress for nigh on three decades, and for those who have played there in recent Ashes contests, it represents the single biggest obstacle to England's hopes of retaining the urn.

"Brisbane is intimidating," says Michael Vaughan, England's Ashes-winning captain in 2005 and now a BT Sport commentator. "The pitch is quicker and the Australians just seem to be more Australian than across the whole of the country. If you can come through Brisbane, as a team and a person, you've got a chance."

That is, however, the biggest 'if' in the world of Test cricket. England have not won a Test at the Gabba since 1986-87, when Ian Botham's last hurrah kickstarted Mike Gatting's Ashes-winning campaign, and had it not been for an opportune thunderstorm on the 1998-99 tour, they would have been trounced in six of their last seven visits. And moreover, each of those defeats was immediately followed up by another timid loss in the second Test - 2-0 down in the blink of an eye, the series all but over.

"The Gabba is an intimidating Test-match full stop, because of Australia's record there and because it is the first match of the series," says ESPN's Mark Butcher. "The build-up to an Ashes series is unlike any other, particularly if you've never played in one before. So you've gone through the whole thing of being virtually strip-searched at customs when you arrive, to the constant pressure and barracking from guys in the reception at hotels to the newspapers. A combination of all those things makes the Gabba particularly intimidating."

"Brisbane can completely unlock your team, your culture, your ethic," says Vaughan, who experienced a brutal baptism on the 2002-03 tour. "Your individuals within the team can suddenly become scared and fearful of the Australians. Because Australia, I think, realise what they've got in Brisbane. I think they realise that is their cauldron. For that week of cricket, two days of preparations, five days of a Test match, they hold the key to winning any series that they play."

In fact, its reputation is so fearsome that, twice in recent Gabba history, England's challenge has effectively been over before a legal delivery has been bowled. In 2002-03, Nasser Hussain infamously won the toss and chose to bowl first - a tacit admission that his team were not up to the challenge, and Australia's first-day scoreline of 364 for 2 amply reinforced that point.

"You have to get your mentality right for the Gabba," says Vaughan. "I remember Matthew Hayden smacking Andrew Caddick in about the third over. I dropped a catch, and fumbled one early because I was a bit panicky and nervous.

"And then there was the Simon Jones incident," Vaughan adds, recalling the horrific moment on the first morning of the match, when Jones slid on the boundary's edge and ruptured the ligaments in his right knee. "The crowd gave him nothing. There was no sympathy until they realised it was serious. But for two or three minutes, it was like 'c'mon Jones, get up mate!' Get up and bowl. But the kid's struggling."

And then, four years later, another England fast bowler was in the spotlight. Armed with the new ball and with the eyes of the cricket world zeroed in on him, Steve Harmison's first delivery of the 2006-07 series was such a yawning wide that it ended up in the hands of Andrew Flintoff at second slip. The contrast with Harmison's hostility on the opening day of the previous series, at Lord's in 2005, was stark and stunningly dispiriting for England and their followers.

Looking back, however, Kevin Pietersen wasn't quite so convinced of the moment's significance. "I didn't see it as big a deal as bowling to second slip or third slip, who cares?" he says. "Anyone can bowl that ball; my only issue with that day was that we bowled so much that was short and wide. I was at backward point, and at the end of that day my legs were broken, I was running out to that boundary, fetching so many balls."

The exception to the rule of English misery at the Gabba was truly exceptional. England's triumphant tour of 2010-11 was forged on the final day of the first Test, when Alastair Cook's double-hundred guided England to the remarkable second-innings scoreline of 517 for 1. And yet, even on that occasion, the best-drilled Ashes tourists in recent memory were debilitated by stage fright on the opening day of the contest, when Andrew Strauss, their captain, holed out for a second-ball duck, before Peter Siddle's hat-trick ripped the roof off a passionate and pumped-up stadium.

"There's just something about Brisbane," says Vaughan. "At Adelaide, there's a festival atmosphere of cricket. It's almost like going to the races, you feel you're at an occasion of joy.

"Brisbane is not an occasion of joy. The dressing rooms for a start, they are down underneath, so it's like you are like locked into the dungeon, then you get released into this concrete jungle and the heat the heat just hits you as you come through the tunnel from an air-conditioned dressing-room."

And that heat, as you can imagine, is not simply restricted to the weather. In 1974-75, the Gabba was the venue for one of the great Ashes muggings of all time, when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were unleashed on England's unwitting tourists with the entire venue screaming them on. And that sensation was repeated, in no uncertain terms, on England's most recent visit in 2013-14, when Mitchell Johnson - a figure of fun on the previous tour - unleashed fire and damnation, the like of which has rarely been witnessed.

Johnson terrorised England's batting with nine wickets in the match, including second-innings figures of 5 for 42, and left collateral damage strewn across England's campaign, most notably in the case of Jonathan Trott, whose tour ended immediately after the match as he flew home from the tour with a stress-related condition.

For Pietersen, that match had been his third visit to the Gabba, and even a player of his stature had never seen anything like Johnson's bowling.

"We knew that the team was rattled," says Pietersen. "The bowlers were walking around saying 'we are actually scared'.

"I saw a few balls to Trotty and I was like 'am I seeing things here, or is this ridiculously fast?' So I took Mushtaq Ahmed [England's spin coach] into the indoor nets before lunch, wet the tennis balls, and I said 'Mushy, literally clean me out here, do whatever you can, from 10-12 yards away, just take me out!'"

"I'd never witnessed a spell of bowling from one individual with 40,000 people baying for blood," says Vaughan, who watched the carnage unfold from the press box. "That noise of the run-up, then the quietness in that split-second of the release of the ball, and then noise again as the whole crowd all went "ooh!" You felt that every England batsman who went out there wasn't just facing 90mph, they were facing 40,000 people. And that was as hostile as I've ever seen."

Forewarned is forearmed for this year's England tourists. There's no challenge quite like the one that they are about to begin.