By Jason Reed
MACKSVILLE, Australia (Reuters) - Australia bid an emotional farewell to cricketer Phillip Hughes at a funeral in his hometown on Wednesday with a live coast-to-coast broadcast allowing a nation to unite in celebration of the life of a sportsman cut down in his prime.
Eight days after Hughes was struck by a ball on the back of the head and six after he died from the catastrophic injuries that resulted, his family, friends and a host of cricketing greats gathered at Macksville High School.
Cricket Australia Chief Executive James Sutherland spoke for many when he tried to make sense of the huge outpouring of grief that followed the tragic death of the left-handed batsman a few days short of his 26th birthday.
"The wave of emotion that has washed over our country this past week tells us so much about the affection millions felt for Phillip and also about the privileged place cricket has near the heart of this nation," he said.
"Quite simply, the boy from this proud community of Macksville, personified the spirit of Australian cricket.
"Ever since Bradman, the image of the innocent country boy playing in the backyard while dreaming of wearing a baggy green cap has become entrenched in our psyche. It's our foundation myth as a cricketing nation."
Some 1,000 mourners, mostly locals with a smattering of luminaries including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, dabbed away tears and perspiration in the baking heat of the school hall with thousands more watching on screens in the sunshine outside.
From the eulogies, they learned of a beloved son, brother, cousin and friend whose passion for cricket was matched only by his enthusiasm for the Angus cattle he helped raise on the family farm.
They were also reminded of a small town boy with a prodigious talent for hitting a ball with a bat who headed down the coast to big city Sydney as a teenager and ended up playing 26 tests for his country.
Australia captain Michael Clarke broke down in tears for the second time in a few days as he paid public tribute to his former team mate and friend.
"Phillip's spirit, which is now part of our game forever, will act as a custodian of the sport we all love. We must listen to it," he said, struggling to contain his emotions.
"We must cherish it. We must learn from it. We must dig in and get through to tea. And we must play on.
"So rest in peace my little brother. I will see you out in the middle."
Australian greats of the game such as Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath were in attendance, while Richard Hadlee, Brian Lara and India captain Virat Kohli represented the wider cricket world.
New South Wales paceman Sean Abbott, who delivered the bouncer that dealt the fatal blow in a state match at the Sydney Cricket Ground last Tuesday, was also among the mourners.
When he suffered the injury, Hughes was batting for a recall to the Australia side for the opening match in the test series against India, which has since been rescheduled.
Tributes continued to flood in from around the world on Wednesday, many joining the viral campaign to get people to place cricket bats outside homes, workplaces and at sports grounds in tribute to Hughes.
Hughes's own bat rested against the coffin throughout a service which concluded with "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", the song Elton John dedicated to the cricketer when he played it in a concert in Munich last week.
Clarke and fellow cricketers Aaron Finch and Tom Cooper joined Hughes's father and brother among the pallbearers and delivered the coffin to the hearse, which then set off in a procession through the town.
Hughes was cremated in a private ceremony.
(Writing by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Greg Stutchbury/Peter Rutherford)