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HELL had not quite broken loose when the Bodyline tour arrived in Tasmania for Christmas. The Australians suspected that something was up, but their fury was simmering. It was still to reach the level where they threatened to sever links, both cri cketing and diplomatic, with the old country.

They were 1-0 down in the Test series with four to play but Don Bradman had missed the first Test. Nothing, however, was about to disrupt the Englishmen's happiness.

"You couldn't have done anything else but enjoy it," Tommy Mitchell, who was the leg-spinner in the touring party, said last week. "We were a winning team. The Australians didn't like it, but that didn't affect us."

Mitchell was fairly peripheral to the lethal fast-bowling strategy which had been devised to ensure that England regained the Ashes. But the former Derbyshire collier, plucked from the face at Cresswell pit to play professional cricket, was central to the squad's mood.

He was the joker in the pack, a man known, somewhat catchily, as the merry-hearted cricketer. Throughout that winter in Australia Mitchell made pals. When relations declined to a level where today's sledging would have seemed like a declaration of love he still chatted cheerily away to the opposition, played pranks, had a beer or two and a bet. Indeed, it was around Christmas that the captain, Douglas Jardine, had to speak to one or two of the professionals. According to contemporary reports they had "developed a taste for late hours". "Not me," protested To mmy.

Tasmania, he recalled, forcing his mind back 62 Christmases, was the place where he played the fish joke. He had met an obsessive Aussie fisherman in Launceston who talked constantly of the fish he had caught. So Tommy went down to Launceston Harbour, bought several pounds of fresh fish and had them delivered to the fellow's door.

"There wasn't much to do in Tasmania, which could have been why they sent us there," he said. "We had a good party and got up to some larks behind closed doors," suggesting that nothing much changes. Miss the family? "There wasn't time to miss the family," though he added this with a twinkle in his eye and probably for the benefit of his daughter who was standing close by.

Mitchell was 92 in September and next to Bob Wyatt, who was also on the Bodyline tour, is the second oldest surviving Test cricketer. Tommy had good cricketing reasons for enjoying Christmas 1932. Days before in Launceston, he took 11 wickets and put himself in the running for the Test team. The papers were full of the distance he could spin the ball, his accuracy, his twirling, idiosyncratic run-up and his bowling an over in what must be a record-breaking 46 seconds.

He gently rejected the praise ("I was a good bowler but Hedley Verity was better because he was mechanical") and insisted he had been lucky to make the tour, for which he was paid £400 in instalments plus taxi expenses, princely then. After all these years he still recalls above all the deeds of Harold Larwood. The great fast bowler and he were close pals all tour, coming as they did from pit villages in the Midlands. Harold, said Tommy, did not say much, but he was not bothered by the Bodyline controversy. He just bowled.

Mitchell played one Test on the tour, the crucial fourth at Brisbane in which England regained the Ashes. This followed the bitter Adelaide match, just three weeks after Christmas, when acrimonious cables were exchanged between the countries. The leg-spinner dismissed the Australian captain and opening batsman Bill Woodfull in both innings. He still relishes rather more having bowled Bradman for nought with a googly against New South Wales.

Hindsight suggests that the merry-hearted cricketer was unfortunate not to play more in the Bodyline series. Perhaps it was more important that when cricket was experiencing its darkest hour it was written of him: "In these days when it requires only a touch of flame to destroy the edifice which has been erected round cricket between England and Australia, a personality like that of Mitchell is like a safety valve."

Tommy, has lived for almost 50 years in South Yorkshire. He played cricket until 1939 then returned to the pit. After 1,483 wickets he never had a benefit. But on his mantelpiece is something more enduring, one of a limited edition of engraved silver ashtrays, a reminder of an epic triumph. "From a grateful skipper," it said, "for the Ashes."