Sri Lanka's bowlers made early inroads in the second test with four top-order wickets in the first session against England.
After winning the toss and electing to bat, England reached 120-4 at lunch on Wednesday with Jos Buttler unbeaten on 38 following a hectic opening morning.
England lost first test star Keaton Jennings for one when he was caught behind off stand-in captain Suranga Lakmal, the only seamer in Sri Lanka's bowling attack.
Ben Stokes (19) was promoted to bat at No. 3 and was adjudged lbw to Dilruwan Perera on review after the Sri Lankans referred the original decision.
Captain Joe Root (14) was bowled off an inside edge as Malinda Pushpakumara, making a return to the test XI, made an impact.
Akila Dananjaya, who was reported by the match officials for a suspect bowling action during the first test, put the controversy aside to dismiss opener Rory Burns in his first over. Burns made 43 with five fours and was caught at first slip.
Buttler then adopted the sweep shot, both the conventional and reverse, to good effect as he stroked five boundaries and raced to 38 off 32 deliveries.
England played the same XI that won in Galle by 211 runs last week. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, was forced into two changes. Injured skipper Dinesh Chanidmal was replaced by middle order batsman Roshen Silva, and left-arm orthodox spinner Pushpakumara came in for Rangana Herath, who retired in Galle.