The sense of excitement was palpable on this warm, smoggy evening as cricket fans queued for hours outside Gaddafi Stadium in Pakistan’s Lahore.
Despite the long lines, people of all ages waited patiently for their security cards to be checked before entering the stadium to watch the highest-profile international cricket match in eight years.
In 2009, the bus of the Sri Lankan national team was attacked by 12 gunmen in Lahore while heading to the stadium.
The attack left eight people dead and seven players wounded. Since then, no major Test-playing nation went to Pakistan due to security concerns.
But on Sunday, the returning Sri Lankan team received a hero’s welcome – despite some of its major players pulling out of the match.
Government officials and cricket fans took to social media to thank the Sri Lanka players, while banners seen all across the city welcomed them to Lahore.
Inside the stadium, fans held posters and waved Sri Lankan flags as the teams entered the stadium.
The match took place against the backdrop of a large security operation. More than 10,000 security forces were deployed and Lahore was put on lockdown – all in order to prove that international cricket could once again be played in front Pakistan’s passionate fans.
Pakistan scored a 36-run T20 victory over Sri Lanka, but this was a match where the result was only a small part of the equation.
Al Jazeera spoke to cricket enthusiasts and spectators about what the match meant to them and the country:
I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here.
I missed the last series here because I couldn’t find a ticket to buy.
But it’s like a dream come true seeing international cricket, back in Pakistan, with my own eyes.
|Spectators hold placards during the T20 international cricket match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka [Mohsin Raza/Reuters]|
You can just feel the excitement in the air right now.
We had almost lost hope for any more gatherings like this in Lahore.
But the Sri Lankan team has done us a great favour.
It’s finally here, the big moment.
I’m not a cricket fan, but I do believe in Pakistan.
I must say that all of Pakistan wasn’t quite there over the last few years because cricket was missing.
|Pakistan’s cricket team celebrates after winning the third and final T20 cricket match against Sri Lanka [Aamir Quereshi/Getty Images]|
But it’s back. We’re back in form. We’re back in shape.
Special thanks to Sri Lanka – what awesome people you are. Because you’ve made us complete again.
Bless you for coming to Pakistan, and bless you for playing the champions game in a tough country, making us whole again.
First of all, I want to welcome the Sri Lankan team to Pakistan after eight years, and it’s brought back the entertainment and fun to our stadium.
We were coming to see the matches eight years ago, and every match of Pakistan’s since, I haven’t missed since.
It’s my prayer that this keeps going on and Pakistan is now a safe place.
We have proved that now, every team that wants to play with us should come here and we will welcome everyone. We are very, very excited to be here.
There are no words to describe my happiness at seeing international cricket back in Pakistan.
We are a cricket-crazy country .. It is the only binding force, and almost an alternate religion.
What can one say to Sri Lanka except a huge “thank you”.
|Pakistan’s players celebrate after winning the third and final T20 cricket match against Sri Lanka [Aamir Queshi/Getty Images]|
I know Pakistan also stood by them during the times the country was wracked with violence and other teams were willing to forfeit their matches rather than go there for the World Cup.
However, what happened to them here in Pakistan was horrific. It made us a pariah state in the cricket world, yet they are the first ones to end our isolation so one cannot be grateful enough.
I have very mixed emotions about the situation.
As a Pakistani fan,it is obviously heartening to see fans inside Gadaffi Stadium again.
You can see the impact it has on the team, on how well they perform, and it’s an important, integral part of our culture.
As a Pakistani citizen, and I think this opinion of mine trumps the previous one, I am not in favour of cricket returning into the country, because personally I feel it is immoral that we continue to have terrorist attacks. We continue to have security issues, we continue to have hate speech in the country.
|A Pakistani soldier stands guard outside the Gaddafi Stadium [Mohsin Raza/Reuters]|
We have such an existential crisis which continues to take lives of Pakistanis.
So much of our security apparatus is diverted to provide security [for such an event].
And I understand that it is necessary and it’s a very difficult decision to take.
I sympathise with the Pakistan cricket board, I don’t think they have much less of an option.
They are making the best of a situation. But as a citizen, I do have my misgivings about the prioritisation of cricket over the security of many of our countrymen and areas of our country.
Finally, I think it is very important to acknowledge the Sri Lankan cricket team and board and the nation in general.
I don’t think cricket would have survived in Pakistan after the 2009 terrorist attacks if it hadn’t been for Sri Lanka.