MACKSVILLE (Australia): Cricket bats stood sentry outside homes and hundreds braved fierce summer heat to walk behind the hearse of Phillip Hughes, as Macksville's small community paid tribute Wednesday to the batsman whose career they had followed since he was a boy.
Scores lined roads in the centre of the northern New South Wales coastal town, some with heads bowed, others clapping for the sombre procession which followed the funeral attended by cricketing stars past and present. Green and gold ribbons adorned the streets and shop fronts were taken over by moving tributes to the cricketer who died last week after being hit by a bouncer while playing at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Residents watch the coffin of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes drive through his home town of Macksville in northern New South Wales after his funeral on Wednesday. Pic/AFP
"It's devastated," said local resident Tanieka Stewart when asked to describe the town with a population of 2,500 where Hughes grew up. They had watched Hughes rise from a junior player to the national team and now were playing host to a funeral televised live and attended by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
"The whole town stopped," Stewart added of the moment that news came through last Thursday that Hughes had died, two days after being struck by the ball at the base of his skull in a domestic game. "I was working and the whole town just stopped. We were all hoping that he would pull through."
The funeral, attended by the Australian team and former stars such as Shane Warne, Brian Lara and Richard Hadlee, was an unprecedented event for the community. At Hughes's old primary school, St Patrick's, dozens of bats lined the front fence, many bearing messages remembering the hugely popular 25-year-old.
"You will always be a part of Macksville's family and forever in everyone's hearts... you are a true inspiration and hero to all the kids in the Nambucca Valley," read one. - 'I can't believe he's gone' - Assistant principal Julie Ryan, who taught Hughes as a seven-year-old, remembers a fun-loving but determined child who showed exceptional sporting talent from a young age.
"He was very competitive in every sport. I remember Phillip, I can still remember the family being so proud... he just wanted to get outside in the playground and play with his mates," she said. "He was a good friend and a good student."
Ryan said the town was in shock at the loss of the man who would have turned 26 last Sunday and who had still been involved with local junior cricket, donating his Australia shirts and equipment to the children. "It's surreal," she said. "It's hard to imagine.
I still see the papers and I can't believe he's gone." Logan Jones, 12, who plays for the same Macksville junior team that Hughes played for, said many students at the school felt a personal connection with the high-profile batsman who scored three centuries in 26 Tests. "He was sort of a mate to all of us," he said.
The school's front fence was adorned with the words which students felt personified Hughes, including 'leader', 'character', 'determined' and 'mentor'. "I chose to put it with 'friend'," Jones said when asked where he had placed his bat. "Because that's what he reflected."