Ashes 2013: Alec Stewart verdict on England v Australia series

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England can expose Ashes gulf - Stewart

First Test: England v Australia

Trent Bridge, Nottingham
10-14 July
11:00 BST
Ball-by-ball Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio 4 Long Wave and via the BBC iPlayer Radio app, BBC Sport website & BBC Sport app; updates on BBC Radio 5 live; live text commentary on BBC Sport website, app & mobile devices

After the great successes of Andy Murray at Wimbledon and the British and Irish Lions in Australia at the weekend, the England cricket team have the chance to add to an unforgettable summer of sport by winning their third Ashes series in a row.

The Ashes have always had an extra edge, given the history of the rivalry between England and Australia but, since England's victory in 2005, the public and the media have taken the anticipation to another level.

I played in seven Ashes series during my career and, although we lost all of them, I take a lot of pride from having given it my all against one of the best sides of all time.

This year's tourists may not be in the same league as their predecessors, but they remain a dangerous side who could easily cause an upset if England are not on their A game from the very start.

What are your favourite Ashes memories?

The win at Edgbaston in 1997 to put us 1-0 up was very special because it was the only time in the Ashes series I played in where we went ahead. Nasser Hussain scored a double hundred, Graham Thorpe got a big hundred and then Michael Atherton and I knocked off the runs to get the win.

The Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in 1998-99 was also memorable. The final session of the fourth day lasted nearly four hours and Dean Headley bowled a tremendous spell to win us the match by 12 runs. It brought us back to 2-1 down going into the final Test in Sydney and the way we fought back to win the game was a great achievement.

Lots of other less fond memories have stayed with me too. Shane Warne's famous ball to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993 is an obvious one, as were some of the great innings I had to witness from behind the stumps, from players such as Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting.

How do you rate the Aussies?

I've heard a few pundits predicting a 5-0 whitewash for England but, although I like their confidence, I think they are seriously underestimating this Australia side.

In Shane Watson, Chris Rogers and captain Michael Clarke, they have three batsmen who have been around for some time and will be tough to get out in any conditions.

In Brad Haddin, they have a real Australian battler who will not be giving away an inch and they also have a strong pace bowling attack.

Anyone getting over-confident should remember 1989. The tourists were tagged as the worst Australia side ever and then they whipped England 4-0. Pay respect to the opposition and make sure as an England cricketer you have your own game in order.

Will Darren Lehmann make a difference?

Darren Lehmann was a fine player who knows English conditions extremely well. He will have walked into that Australia dressing room and commanded respect from the very start. He is also a top bloke who gets on well with people and has already shown as a coach that he can get the best out of the talent at his disposal.

I'm also impressed by the way he has imposed himself on the job, naming his opening partnership a week early and giving confidence to those players. He seems to have galvanised the dressing room and renewed the players' self-belief.

Which side have the best attack?

I think the pace attacks are really well matched. James Pattinson looks a real handful - fast and skilful - Mitchell Starc is a left-armer who can get the ball to swing, and Peter Siddle is a grafter who has experience of English conditions.

In James Anderson, England have the best swing bowler on either side, but the real difference between the teams could be Graeme Swann. Australia spinner Nathan Lyon has decent Test figures and will do a job, but Swann is a proven match-winner.

Is Root the right man to open the batting?

Joe Root
Root is "a young man with an outstanding temperament"

At the end of the New Zealand series, I was possibly over-protective of Joe Root and concerned that we were promoting him up the order too quickly.

Since then I've analysed it more closely, found out more about Root the person, and it has become clear that this is a young man with an outstanding temperament, who has handled everything that has been thrown at him in his England career to date.

There is also Jonny Bairstow, who has the potential to grow in Test cricket into a fine player. He has shown great promise and if he enjoys a successful Ashes series, it could set him up for a long England career.

Nick Compton, who is at a far later stage of his career, does not have the same potential to develop as a player. The selectors have asked him to go back to county cricket and keep churning out the runs. He has put in decent performances against the Australians for both Somerset and Worcestershire and needs to ensure that he is the next batsman in line should a change be needed through injury or loss of form.

The Pietersen factor

Kevin Pietersen is a world-class cricketer who would walk into any team in the world. Two weeks ago he scored that wonderful 177 for Surrey against Yorkshire, but what really struck me was the attention to detail he puts in to his practice, whether it be indoors or outdoors.

He has worked really hard to get back from a very serious knee injury and can now concentrate on what he does best out in the middle.

The dressing-room problems that reared their angry head last summer have now been firmly put to bed and I expect to see KP as a key member of a close-knit dressing room with the one goal of winning the series.

How important is the first delivery?

Steve Harmison
Harmison's first-ball wide in 2006 was caught by Andrew Flintoff

The first ball can definitely set the tone for the series, something which Steve Harmison will need no reminding of after his first-ball wide to second slip at Brisbane in 2006.

Most people will make sure they are in their seats nice and early and there will be a real buzz of anticipation around the opening exchanges.

Whoever is bowling or facing that ball needs to make sure their nerves are settled and they are absolutely focused on the job in hand.

Who will win?

It will be a tough series with both teams giving their all.

I'm convinced England will win and win well, and by the end of the summer they will have shown there is a gulf in quality between the two sides.

Alec Stewart was speaking to BBC Sport's Sam Sheringham.

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