Sri Lanka reached 105-2 in reply to England's first innings of 351 by the close of the second day of the second Test in Colombo.
Ryan Sidebottom claimed two wickets, including the in-form Kumar Sangakkara, to put the hosts in trouble at 22-2.
But an unbroken 83-run, third-wicket partnership between Michael Vandort and Mahela Jayawardene allowed Sri Lanka to bat throughout the final session without losing a wicket.
Earlier, Matt Prior had made 79 as England extended their first innings from an overnight position of 258-5 to 351 all out by mid-afternoon.
Prior shared a 74-run stand with Sidebottom that rescued the innings after Paul Collingwood and Stuart Broad both fell cheaply at the start of the day.
Sidebottom accounted for Upul Tharanga and Sangakkara during his opening spell to reduce Sri Lanka to 25-2 at tea.
Both were dismissed in similar fashion - Tharanga, recalled due to Sanath Jayasuriya's retirement, was caught behind after being drawn into playing at a full, swinging delivery.
And Sangakkara - who made scores of 92 and 152 in the first Test - also edged behind after being tempted by a ball outside his off-stump.
But as had been the case during England's innings, once the shine had worn off the new ball it became tough going for the bowlers.
Stuart Broad (0-19) bowled accurately on debut and troubled Vandort with some extra bounce, although he was twice warned for running on the pitch in his follow through.
Broad shared the new ball ahead of Steve Harmison. When the Durham paceman did eventually get his first bowl in a Test since June, he worked up a good pace but went wicketless in 10 overs.
England did not claim any further wickets as Vandort and Jayawardene worked hard in the final session to rebuild their side's innings.
Vandort completed a 91-ball half-century in the final over of the day, while Jayawardene finished on 43 not out.
England's hopes of building a big first-innings score looked to be over when Collingwood and Broad both departed within the first 10 overs of the morning.
Collingwood did manage to complete his seventh Test half-century before being adjudged lbw to Chaminda Vaas (2-68), having added just three to his overnight position of 49.
The Durham batsman offered no stroke to a Vaas' inswinger and umpire Daryl Harper wasted little time in raising the finger, although replays indicated the ball would have comfortably cleared the stumps.
Broad's first action of his debut Test was brief, lasting eight balls and mustering two runs before Lasith Malinga (3-78) pinned him plumb lbw with a full, quick delivery.
At 272-7 England looked to have wasted the advantage of winning the toss on such a good batting pitch, but Prior and Sidebottom produced a partial recovery with a 74-run stand in 26.4 overs either side of lunch.
The umpires, however, contrived to produce another talking point, just a day after their refusal to refer a dubious catch upstairs resulted in Kevin Pietersen's dismissal.
Sri Lanka captain Jayawardene dived forward from second slip to claim a catch off Sidebottom. Umpire Harper, after consulting with his colleague, Aleem Dar, this time decided to take the safe option and referred the decision upstairs.
While the catch was clean, it was also clear from the replay that the ball had deflected off Sidebottom's shoulder rather than the outside edge, a fact that was duly relayed to the on-field umpires.
That reprieve allowed the Nottinghamshire seamer to continue his supporting act to Prior, who looked in increasingly good touch as his innings progressed.
The Sussex wicketkeeper went to his second Test half-century in a row - and fourth in total - from 79 balls, including six fours.
Sidebottom's 81-ball vigil for 17 was eventually brought to an end by Muttiah Muralitharan, who cleaned up the tail with wickets in three successive overs to complete the 62nd five-wicket haul of his career.
Harmison top-edged his first ball - a full toss - to Chamara Silva at square-leg with an ill-advised sweep.
And Prior was last out for 79 when his attempt to hit Muralitharan over the top went high in the air to give the off-spinner a return catch and figures of 5-116.