Hambantota - Tight security and empty seats failed to dampen a party atmosphere Tuesday as cricket's World Twenty20 began under a cacophony of vuvuzela horns in Sri Lanka.
Fans blowing the plastic trumpets and wearing lion head-dresses greeted the players as the hosts went into bat in the opening game in Hambantota, the president's home town and future site of a major new port.
Roads leading to the far-flung Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium - named after the president - were jammed with fans, as hundreds of police officers formed a security cordon. Sri Lanka was beset by four decades of ethnic conflict until 2009.
Mohammad Sajid, among a group of 20 students who travelled from the nearby town of Tissamaharama, said the three-week tournament in Hambantota, Pallekele and Colombo would shift perceptions of Sri Lanka.
"We have formed a group of 20 to suit Twenty20 cricket," said Sajid. "It is befitting that Sri Lanka is the first Asian country to host the World Twenty20 and we hope that it will help lift our country's image."
Unlike some tournaments, there was no glitzy opening ceremony or parade, just the national anthems and handshakes from dignitaries, as Sri Lanka's biggest ever sports event got under way.
And at the start of the match, the 35 000-capacity stadium was not even half-full. Organisers were expected to open the gates to non ticket-holders later in the evening to fill up the ground.
"At last year's World Cup, they arranged pick and drop for the fans because it is tough to come with the nearest town Suriyawewa 10km away from here," said Ranith Waliya, a factory worker.
The tournament hosts hope it will be a sell-out when Sri Lanka face South Africa in the last Group C match in Hambantota on Saturday.
And those inside the stadium, many daubed in face paint or wearing traditional dress, did not hide their excitement as the first ball of the tournament was dispatched for a boundary by debutant Dilshan Munaweera.
"It is electrifying," said Sujita Fernando, a hotel receptionist who came along with her husband and ten-year old son. "We are planning to go to Colombo to see the final with a hope that Sri Lanka is one of the teams there."
The final is scheduled for Colombo on October 7.