MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to cricket, a huge draw in many parts of the world. Pakistanis are crazy about it, so the past few years have felt like a national punishment. International matches have been suspended in Pakistan since militants attacked Sri Lanka's national team in 2009, but now the Sri Lankan team is returning to play a match. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad on how a match is symbolizing hope after years of despair.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: I'm standing in a dusty field in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. And I'm watching a scene that is endlessly replicated throughout this country. There's about four or five games of cricket going on as we speak. And you can hear the call of prayer, the Muslim prayer in the background. Cricket is a big deal in this country, it's woven into the fabric of people's daily lives. And so the return of international cricket to this country has delighted most people.
RAHMAN GUL: (Speaking Indian).
HADID: That's Rahman Gul. He's an 18-year-old waiter, and he plays here in his uniform before he heads to work. He says he's really excited about Sunday. That's when the Sri Lankan team is expected to play Pakistan. It's a really big deal because eight years ago, the Sri Lankan team was attacked by militants. Gunmen opened fire on their convoy and even lobbed grenades. They injured 17 members. Pakistan then was in the throes of escalating violence. The army was fighting extremists, and they were retaliating with deadly attacks. Even so, hurting a sports team was a turning point says Amara Durrani, a sociologist.
AMARA DURRANI: Even harmless innocent activities like sports could no longer be safe either for the people of Pakistan or for the visitors. Pakistan paid a heavy price.
HADID: International cricket games were suspended. But over the past few years, Pakistan security forces have managed to quell much of the violence. And sports officials worked hard to lure cricket back. In September, they hosted a team of top international cricketers to play here, offering them thousands of dollars each. They ensured the play's security by shutting down shops and diverting traffic in a miles-wide radius around the stadium. And now Sri Lanka plays tomorrow - with caveats. Many of their top-tier players and the coach have refused to come. They've been replaced by other players, and it looks like Pakistan has a good chance of winning. And that would give this country a rare moment of joy. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.
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