MACKSVILLE, Australia: Cricket luminaries and fans Wednesday gathered for the emotional funeral of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes, whose death from a freak on-field injury brought his grieving hometown to a standstill.
Hughes, 25, and on the cusp of a recall to the Test team, 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.
His tragic death stunned Australia, where cricket is considered the national game, and prompted the rescheduling of the upcoming India Test series, while fans around the world placed cricket bats outside their front doors as a mark of respect.
In Hughes’ small hometown of Macksville, on Australia’s east coast, tributes to the opener who scored three centuries in 26 Tests hung in shop windows, while ribbons in the green and gold colours of the Australian Test team adorned telephone poles.
“It’s so huge. It’s so massive,” said local resident Bethany Simmons of the response to Hughes’ death as she looked at the tributes with her children.
“It’s so shocking, you never expect this to happen in cricket. Everyone knows the risks of rugby… but this was just so shocking. And he had so much potential.”
Macksville itself, with a population of just 2,500, has been bracing a funeral to be attended by luminaries such as Shane Warne, Richard Hadlee, and Hughes’ first Test skipper Ricky Ponting.
Brian Lara, who had been in Australia, is representing the West Indies Cricket Board which noted that “the entire cricket world is in shock and a state of grief”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott also planned to attend.
Current Australian captain Michael Clarke, a close friend of Hughes, will be among the pallbearers and deliver a tribute during the service which starts at 2:00pm (0300 GMT) and will be televised live.
It will open with the song ‘Forever Young’, while Hughes’ cousin Nino Ramunno, brother Jason and sister Megan will deliver the eulogy before Elton John’s ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ closes proceedings.
Hughes’ parents Greg and Virginia and siblings have invited the whole town to the service at Macksville High School, with about 1,000 expected to cram into the hall and space for 4,000 more in overflow areas.
After the service, the hearse will travel down the town’s main street, with mourners expected to line the procession to bid farewell to one of their favourite sons.
“There’s not one Australian who can’t be with us here in Macksville to celebrate Phillip’s life,” Hughes’ manager James Henderson said.
“That’s something, again, that’s been very exceptionally moving for the family, to think that the whole of the country can stop and join them in celebrating his life and sending him off in the way that they really want to.
“Hughesy was a really no-fuss guy and I know he would be looking down at all of this and wondering what the hell’s going on,” he added.
The funeral is 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.
Hughes died after his vertebral artery split when hit by the ball, leading to massive bleeding in his brain.
As she walked the main street looking at the tributes, local resident Zan Moc said she wished the Hughes family well.
“They gave us their son — I just hope that we can all support them,” she said.