England opted to bat first with the rejigged order in Kandy, promoting Ben Stokes to No 3, bumping Jos Buttler to five and shunting Moeen Ali back to six but all had come and gone, with varying success, when Curran thrashed a top-scoring 64.
The 20-year-old hit the accelerator with six sixes as he shepherded last man James Anderson to the highest stand of the day, 60, topping up what had been an underpowered total and sapping the home side of their growing enthusiasm. Jack Leach then bagged a wicket before close-of-play, rocking back Kaushal Silva’s off stump to leave Sri Lanka 26 for one.
There was an element of fortune in England’s final position, Niroshan Dickwella badly botching a stumping that would have sent Curran back for one and he had further escapes on seven and 53.
But the Surrey all-rounder seized his moment with style on a testing, turning Pallekele pitch that should only get harder to score on.
Buttler also deserves tremendous credit, coming in at 89 for four and fashioning an imaginative 63. He quickly read the pace of the pitch and focused almost exclusively on a diet of orthodox and reverse sweeps.
Stokes’ elevation was less of an immediate success. Having survived a marginal lbw review defending Dilruwan Perera on the back foot he proceeded to fall in similar fashion on 19. Perera was comfortably the pick of the bowlers, taking four for 61 with his precise, nagging off-breaks.
Rory Burns had earlier started solidly at opener, making a controlled 43 before Akila Dananjaya snared his edge with a beauty.
Not all of Burns’ colleagues were as blameless. Keaton Jennings, fresh from a redemptive first Test century, was first to fall with a familiar nibble outside off stump, Joe Root was late, loose and bowled through the gate by Malinda Pushpakumara, while Moeen made a tame lbw victim.
Most baffling was England’s Galle hero Ben Foakes, who was given out caught at slip despite no evidence of an edge and made no attempt to refer the decision.
Having lived by the sweep Buttler eventually died by it, another trusty reverse against Pushpakumara finally lobbing to short third man. At 171 for seven England might have been tentatively targeting 200. That they left that modest tally well in the distance was down to Curran.
By the time Adil Rashid (31) and Leach had come and gone he still had just 16 from 65 deliveries and a No 11 for company.
Curran threw caution to the wind, smashing a flurry of sixes before he finally holed out down the ground.