#CricketComesHome: Pakistan set to renew cricket love affair on home soil

Cricket returns to Pakistan 6 years after deadly attack
Cricket returns to Pakistan 6 years after deadly attack

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Cricket returns to Pakistan 6 years after deadly attack 02:15

Story highlights

  • Pakistan playing first home match since gun attack on visiting Sri Lankan team in 2009
  • International teams refused to tour Pakistan because of security concerns
  • Pakistan has been fighting a brutal campaign against Islamic militants

Lahore, Pakistan (CNN)It's no secret that Pakistan is cricket crazy.

But over the next few days, this passion for the game is expected to go into overdrive because for the first time in six years, the Pakistani national team is coming home.
On March 3, 2009, the cricket world was left stunned when Sri Lanka's visiting cricket team was attacked by militants on their way to a match in the northeastern city of Lahore. The gunmen sprayed their tour bus with bullets as it neared the stadium, killing eight people -- six policemen and two civilians -- and leaving several of the visiting players wounded.
    The incident was a huge blow for the future of international cricket in the country. In the years that followed international teams backed out of playing here citing security concerns, as Pakistan entered one of the darkest periods in its struggle with an increasingly violent militant insurgency.
    "It's as if cricket's darkest era had coincided with the country's darkest era," sports journalist Ahmer Naqvi tells CNN. "Now that things are looking up for cricket, people are hoping it could foretell something better for the nation's future."
    Pakistan's Twenty20 cricket captain Shahid Afridi (R) and his Zimbabwe counterpart Elton Chigumbura shake hands after unveiling the Twenty20 International trophy in Lahore on May 21.
    Fast forward to 2015 and although Pakistan's militant problem has not been defeated, there's been a noticeable sense of hope and celebration across the nation since Zimbabwe announced they would be coming to play two T20 matches and three one-day internationals (ODI) in Lahore, the scene of the 2009 horror.
    Along the city's Mall road, huge posters welcome the visitors. The matches are due to be held in the imposing fort-like Gaddafi Stadium. The Pakistan Cricket Board said the first two matches at the 60,000-capacity arena are completely sold out.
    In nearby Liberty market, close to where the attack on the Sri Lankan team took place, Khan Muhammad is buying groceries but when asked about the upcoming games he whips out a neatly folded ticket from his shirt pocket. He's kept it with him ever since he bought it two days ago.
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    "I bought this with a friend," he tells CNN, proudly brandishing the ticket. "I can't tell you how happy I am that international cricket has come back to Pakistan."

    High security

    Outside Gaddafi Stadium, police officials and paramilitary troops are out in force -- a huge security operation. Every few steps there is a black police van with policemen sipping mango juice in the sweltering Punjab heat, black Labradors sniff the grounds of the stadium alert for any possible threat. Thousands of security officials have been deployed across the city in anticipation of the event.
    Sitting in a sunlit room overlooking the pitch where all the sporting drama is soon to take place, Sharyaar Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, tells CNN that he's confident that "nothing will happen; there will be utmost security for the teams."
    With international teams previously unwilling to travel to Pakistan, the home team has had to play matches in the UAE, which has really cost the PCB. But the chairman is quick to point out why this tournament is so important for the country.
    "It's not only cricket, it goes beyond the cricketing arena," he says. "If a huge crowd can watch cricket safely in Pakistan, it will send a message across the world that Pakistan is getting safer."
    As dusk settles on the last day before the first game is due to begin, both the Pakistani and Zimbabwean squads practice under the whirring buzz of security helicopters hovering above.

    Young hopes

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    The Pakistan team is a young one, a new generation of players who have the hopes of so many on them. The hash tag #CricketComesHome is trending on social media here, with fans traveling from across the country to watch their heroes play. These young men are waiting in the wings to make their mark on the nation's cricket psyche. They have come of age in turbulent times and many of them have never played an international match in front of a home crowd before.
    Azhar Ali, 30, is the captain for the country's one day team and when he walks out to the pitch next week to lead his players, it will be the first time he will do so on his home turf -- making one of his childhood dreams turn to reality.
    "I think cricket is like second to religion in Pakistan," Azhar says. "International cricket coming back to Pakistan is a very important thing, we have all missed that in the last few years."
    As the sun sets and the bright lights switch on at Gaddafi stadium, the scene is set for a nation to show their love for the game, away from the shadow of militancy.