AUSTRALIA captain Michael Clarke fought back the tears as he gave an emotional tribute at the funeral of Phillip Hughes in Macksville on Wednesday, while thousands of mourners looked on.
The funeral of the former Test batsman, who died last week after being hit on the neck by a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match at the SCG, was attended by the full Australia men’s and women’s squads and many more major figures from the world of cricket.
Clarke was among the pallbearers and also gave a moving speech about his former team-mate.
“He left a mark on our game that needs no embellishment,” the 33-year-old said. “I don’t know about you, but I keep looking for him. I know it’s crazy, but I expect any minute to take a call from him or to see his face pop around the corner.
“Is this what we call the ‘spirit’? If so then his spirit is still with me and I hope it never leaves.”
He said Hughes had “the heart of a man who lived his life for this wonderful game we play”, adding: “His spirit has touched the game, and the SCG will forever be a sacred ground for me.”
Clarke, his voice quaking, ended by echoing something Hughes used to tell him during matches, saying: “We must dig in and get through to tea, and we must play on. So rest in peace, my little brother. I’ll see you out in the middle.”
Sean Abbott, the bowler whose delivery struck Hughes on the neck at the SCG, was among the mourners.
There has been an outpouring of concern for Abbott from the cricketing world in the aftermath of Hughes’ death.
Abbott, 22, who made his Australian one-day and T20 debuts only two months ago, is reported by The Courier to have returned to bowling action on Tuesday in the SCG nets in a New South Wales optional training session.
The service at Hughes’ former school opened with the music ‘Forever Young’ and lasted around 75 minutes, concluding with ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’.
The funeral was broadcast live around Australia and on video screens at the Adelaide Oval and the SCG, where 63 bats were displayed - each with an inscription of a special moment in the player’s career.
Hughes’ coffin was at the front of the hall, surrounded by flowers and cricket bats.
Father Michael Alcock began proceedings, saying it was his “honour and sad privilege” to lead the service.
Hughes’ father Gregory and former state and international team-mates Tom Cooper and Aaron Finch were also pallbearers. Cooper was batting with Hughes when he sustained the fatal injury.
Nino Ramunno delivered an emotional eulogy to his “one of a kind” cousin.
He recounted childhood tales, from Hughes’ verdict on his first day at Homebush Boys High School - “It was okay, but there were no girls there!” - to how he begrudgingly agreed to his brother’s request to fill in for his cricket team, scoring 25 runs as a tail-ender.
Hughes was a “mummy’s boy”, who “often spent hours getting ready and certainly loved a mirror”, he joked, but was “at his happiest on the farm with his dad”.
Jason and Megan Hughes also read out letters to their brother.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better little brother,” Jason said. “From a very young age, you were destined to be our rock star.
“You always had the good looks, the hair... and who said you needed braces to have a smile? You never took a bad photo.”
He added: “I miss you, I’m so proud of you, and thank you again for all the memories. I’ll love you now and forever.”
Megan said: “I’m so honoured to call you my brother, my best friend and my hero.”
Family friend Corey Ireland referenced Hughes’ blossoming career and his pride at his Macksville farm roots, saying: “Phillip’s deal to himself was that he would add another Angus cow to the herd every time he scored a century. His herd quickly grew.”
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland was the final person to address the mourners, saying: “I imagine Phillip has already taken guard up there and is currently flaying his trademark cut shot behind point.
“Cricket’s heart has been pierced with pain, but it will never stop beating. Phillip Hughes... forever unconquered on 63.”
Cricketers past and present formed a guard of honour, with the hearse and funeral procession passing through them before travelling through the streets of Macksville as players and other mourners walked behind.
Former Australia pacemen Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist, prime minister Tony Abbott, and India captain Virat Kohli and team manager Ravi Shastri were among those who made their way through Hughes’ home town along with his family and friends.
Abbott posted on Twitter shortly afterwards: “A sad, poignant, beautiful service to celebrate the life of Phillip Hughes today in Macksville #RIPPhillipHughes.”
Former Australia batsman Damien Martyn tweeted: “#RIP little mate Phillip Hughes... Such a beautiful service. Forever remembered and never forgotten....”