MACKSVILLE: Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes, who died from an injury suffered in a domestic match in Sydney last week, will be buried in his home town on the New South Wales coast later on Wednesday.
After a week in which the cricket world has expressed its shock and grief at the tragedy of a 25-year-old sportsman cut down in his prime, the focus of mourning shifts back to the town where Hughes grew up on a banana and beef farm.
Locals in the small rural community halfway between Sydney and Brisbane were greeted by a muggy summer’s morning as the final preparations were being made for the funeral, which starts at 2pm local time (0300 GMT).
More than 5,000 mourners are expected, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Australia team as well as Hughes’s team mates from the South Australia state side, who witnessed the fatal delivery striking him on the back of the head.
Along the high street where the casket will travel in procession after the funeral, wreaths were laid in a row outside the parade of shops and cricket bats were lined up along the fence of a primary school.
Banners overhead bore images of the lefthanded batsman and the digits “408” — a reference to Hughes becoming the 408th man to play test cricket for Australia when he made his debut in 2009.
“We’re proud of Phillip’s achievements and will remember him fondly as a favourite son, a warm and unaffected young man who was a delight to be around,” the mayor of Nambucca Shire, Rhonda Hoban, told reporters on Tuesday.
There is space for only 1,000 people inside the high school hall where the service will take place and the family have asked that 80 percent of that be reserved for local people. Other mourners will be accommodated on the school playing fields.
Australia captain Michael Clarke, who has played a lauded role in comforting the family since his friend was injured last Tuesday and died last Thursday, will be a pall bearer and read a tribute.
Also attending will be cricket greats from Australia such as Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and the Waugh brothers, while Richard Hadlee, Brian Lara and India captain Virat Kohli will represent the wider world.
The funeral will be broadcast live around the country and big screens have been set up in Australia’s major cities, including at the Sydney Cricket Ground where Hughes suffered the fatal injury.
“There’s not one Australian tomorrow who can’t be with us here in Macksville to celebrate Phillip’s life,” Hughes’s manager James Henderson said on Tuesday.
“That’s something 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.”