Colombo - James Anderson ripped through Sri Lanka's top order with three wickets to hand England the early advantage in the must-win second and final Test in Colombo on Tuesday.
The tourists, trailing 1-0 in the series and needing a win to retain their number one ranking, reduced Sri Lanka to 30 for three after the hosts won the toss and elected to bat at the P. Sara Oval.
Skipper Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera carried the score to 82 for three by lunch, having put on 52 runs so far for the fourth wicket.
England, who lost the first Test in Galle by 75 runs following the 3-0 rout by Pakistan earlier in the year, will slip to second spot behind South Africa if they lose or draw the match.
The start was similar to the one in Galle where Sri Lanka had slumped to 15-3 in the first four overs of the match, two of those wickets falling to Anderson.
England's pace spearhead struck in his third over when he forced Tillakaratne Dilshan to edge a catch to wicket-keeper Matt Prior after the previous two balls had been driven for boundaries.
Kumar Sangakkara was dismissed first ball for the second match in a row when he was snapped up by Andrew Strauss in the slips, the England captain taking the catch at second attempt.
Lahiru Thirimanne padded up to a straight ball from Anderson and was given out leg-before by umpire Bruce Oxenford, a decision upheld by the third umpire after the batsman asked for a review.
Jayawardene, who hit a match-winning 180 in the first Test, was unbeaten on a confident 40 at the break. Samaraweera was on 20.
The tourists went in with a three-man seam attack, bringing in Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn to partner Anderson with the new ball. Spinner Monty Panesar was dropped, while Stuart Broad has flown home with a calf injury.
Sri Lanka made two changes from the side that won in Galle, as a fit-again Angelo Mathews and Dhammika Prasad returned in place of Dinesh Chandimal and Chanaka Welegedara.