Cricketers and cattlemen alike celebrate a son, brother and friend, as Phillip Hughes makes his final journey
A town of nearly 2500 swelled with more than twice that many people. Every contracted Australian cricketer, man or woman, numbering over 400, several members of the touring Indian team, Brian Lara, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Sir Richard Hadlee, Nick Compton, ICC Chief Executive David Richardson representing different parts of the cricket family, Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, and every Macksville local came together to bid farewell to a son, a brother, a cousin, a friend and a teammate.
The memorial service began to strains of ‘Forever Young’, on a hot day, under bright blue skies, there were dark glasses worn and tears choked back.
Green and gold ribbons lined the streets and every establishment downed shutters, putting out personal messages for Hughes.
Little boys wore T-shirts with 408 on the back and cricket bats stood proudly at every corner.
“Phillip Joel Hughes was baptised at a little church up the road, St Patrick’s ... in 1993,” says Father Michael Alcock, who began the service by sprinkling holy water on Hughes’s casket. “We have our Easter candle lit for Phillip today. It reminds us that Phillip was a shining light to those who knew him.”
Nino Ramunno, Phillip’s cousin, remembered his mate with a touching yet light eulogy, going back to the day when cricket first entered a young boy’s life because an Under-10s team was a player short. “Phillip had little interest in cricket. After some debate and Jason’s suggestion that Phillip would be a ‘wuss’, Phillip agreed. “Phillip duly made 25 in his first match, batting as a tailender.”
Ramunno recalled how difficult it was to teach Phillip how to calculate his batting average, and how a move to Sydney did not really result in an improvement in Phillip’s domesticity. “One domestic duty Phillip excelled at was ironing. Boy could he iron. This was driven by his desire to look good … Phillip was always a country boy at heart, but liked what the city could offer him,” said Ramunno. “He was the happiest on the farm with his Dad and their cattle.”
Jason Hughes, Phillip’s brother, recalled a partnership of 210 he shared with Phillip for club team Mosman, and promised to honour Phillip’s memory in the best way possible. “I promise to get back on the horse and play the game we both loved, and be the best player I can be,” said Jason, ending what he called the most important letter he would ever write.
Megan, Phillip’s younger sister, could barely get through her letter without tears rolling down her cheeks. “I am so honoured to call you my brother, my best friend and my hero ... Your presence will never leave the people who love and adore you,” she said. “I will always remember and admire that you never changed or became someone different while your life and career was progressing.”
But it was not all about cricket. Corey Ireland, who knew nothing about the game, and was a close friend of Phillip, spoke strongly of the other love in Phillip’s life: Black Angus cattle. “Phillip was passionate about Angus cattle. He spent every spare moment researching Angus cattle, genetics and planning his next move. He loved the fact that he could share this passion with Greg … His deal with himself was he would buy a new cow for his herd every time he hit a hundred. The herd grew very quickly.”
A breeder himself, Ireland spoke of the time he first met Phillip and did not realise how big a deal the young man was on a cricket field. “He had the passion, determination and desire to succeed. He had a good eye for cattle and had the makings of an outstanding cattleman,” said Ireland. “I learnt that he was handy on the cricket pitch, but our conversations were about cattle. The thing we loved about Hughesy was that he instantly fitted into our family.”
Ireland and Phillip had spent the last two years talking about a dream, of setting up an Angus business. “He decided he wanted to build a serious business of breeding cattle fulltime as his life after cricket. It was the beginning of the ten-year plan. We were well down the track of making his dream a reality. I will miss our daily phone-calls and texts, and his favourite sayings. ‘I’m happy, Corey Ireland, I’m all teeth,’ he would say,” said Ireland, who also ended with a promise. “I make a promise to you today mate. Hughesy, I will keep your dream alive.”
The most heart-wrenching part of the service came next, with Michael Clarke, deeply emotional, gripping the lectern tight just to be able to get through his speech. “He left a mark on our game that needs no embellishment. I don’t know about you, but I keep looking for him,” began Clarke. “I know it’s crazy, but I expect to take a call from him any minute.”
Clarke referred to the connection indigenous Australians believe the spirit has with the land a man walked on, and said he believed this was certainly true of Phillip and the Sydney Cricket Ground, where Phillip was struck that fateful blow. “His spirit has touched it, and it will forever be a sacred ground for me. I can feel his presence there and see how he has touched cricket lovers around the world,” said Clarke. “Phillip’s spirit ... will act as a custodian of the game we love. We must dig in, and get through to tea. And we must play on. Rest in peace my little brother, I’ll see you out in the middle.”
James Sutherland, who has led Cricket Australia so impressively through this difficult passage, said Phillip encapsulated the Australian dream, from backyard to baggy green. “Cricket’s heart has been pierced by pain but will never stop beating. It will find its rhythm next week in Adelaide, and beyond,” said Sutherland. “Phillip Hughes, forever unconquered on 63.”
Elton John’s ‘Don’t let the sun go down on me’ concluded the service as pall bearers, including Clarke, Aaron Finch and Tom Cooper, carried the casket out of the Macksville High School assembly hall and into the streets.
Cricketers and cattlemen alike instinctively lined up in a guard of honour, and when the hearse began its slow crawl, a surge of people fell in behind the vehicle bearing Phillip on his final journey.
The service, which was a celebration of Phillip’s life, reaffirmed one thing: cricket took a favourite son of Australia away, but, eventually, it would be cricket that allowed life to go on as well, when the first ball is sent down in Adelaide next week.