MACKSVILLE, Australia (AFP) – Cricketing greats bid an emotional farewell to Phillip Hughes at a funeral service in his home town Wednesday, as Australia stopped to remember the batsman whose death from a freak injury sent shockwaves through the sport.
A lone cricket bat rested against the coffin at a packed service in his former high school hall in Macksville on the New South Wales coast in front of his heartbroken parents, family and friends and a shattered Australian Test team.
“Taken from the game, his family and loved ones at the age of just 25, left a mark on our game that needs no embellishment,” tearful captain Michael Clarke told the funeral. “I don’t know about you but I keep looking for him.”
Hughes, who had played 26 Tests and was on the cusp of a recall, died from bleeding on the brain last Thursday after being hit on the base of the skull by a rising ball at the Sydney Cricket Ground during a domestic match.
His tragic death stunned Australia, where cricket is considered the national game, and prompted a rescheduling of the upcoming India Test series, while fans around the world placed bats outside their front doors as a mark of respect.
Clarke said he walked to the middle of the SCG on Thursday night: “Those same blades of grass beneath my feet where he and I and so many of his mates here today have built partnerships, taken chances and lived out the dreams we painted in our heads as boys.
“I stood there at the wicket, I knelt down and touched the grass, I swear he was with me… Telling me we just needed to dig in and get through to tea,” he added.
Clarke said the tributes offered from sports stars and fans across the globe had sustained him, from a little girl holding a candle in tribute, to masters of the game such as Sachin Tendulkar expressing sorrow.
“This is what makes our game the greatest game in the world. We must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on,” he added.
“So rest in peace my little brother. I will see you out in the middle.”
In Hughes’ small hometown of Macksville, on Australia’s east coast, tributes to the opening batsman hung in shop windows, while ribbons in the green and gold colours of the Australian Test team adorned telephone poles.
Macksville itself, with a population of just 2,500, welcomed greats such as Shane Warne, Brian Lara, Glenn McGrath, Virat Kohli and Hughes’ first Test skipper Ricky Ponting.
Sean Abbott, the young man who bowled the fast ball which struck Hughes, also attended supported by his parents, as did Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Tony Abbott said there had been profound grief, in part because to “be felled by a hard but fair ball in the centre of the SCG at your most exuberant, it just doesn’t seem right or natural”.
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland said over the past week the nation and the sporting world had reeled in shock.
“Yet even within that profound sense of loss the spirit of cricket has shone through the darkness,” he told the gathering.
Hughes’ parents Greg and Virginia and siblings invited the whole town to the service at Macksville High School, where about 1,000 crammed into the hall and hundreds more watched on screens in overflow areas.
The funeral was a huge event in Macksville, with shops closing and residents in mourning. Just outside town, one business created a huge tribute using three cherry pickers as cricket stumps and putting Hughes’ Test number 408 across them.
At Hughes’s old primary school, St Patrick’s, dozens of bats lined the front fence, many bearing messages remembering the hugely popular opener who was not out on 63 when he was struck.
As a summer storm threatened after a hot day, hundreds walked along the street behind the hearse carrying Hughes’s coffin, some nodding their heads, others applauding, out of respect for the cricketer.
Hughes died after his vertebral artery split when hit by the ball, leading to massive bleeding in his brain.