England opted to bat first with the rejigged order in Kandy, promoting Ben Stokes to number three, 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 26-1
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 further escapes on seven and 53.
But the Surrey all-rounder, who helped steady England on day one in the Galle Test with a gutsy 48, 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 89-4 and fashioning an imaginative 63 either side of the lunch break. Buttler quickly read the pace of the pitch and focused almost exclusively on a diet of orthodox and reverse sweeps.
Though he brought up his half-century with an authoritative pull off Suranga Lakmal his selection of sweeps accounted for 51 of his runs in his new position.
Stokes’ elevation was less of an immediate success despite a couple of pleasing strikes. Having survived a marginal lbw review defending Dilruwan Perera on the back foot he proceeded to fall in similar fashion with 19 to his name. Perera was comfortably the pick of the bowlers, taking 4-61 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 171-7 England might have been tentatively targeting 200. That they left that modest tally well in the distance was down to Curran.
He began gingerly, collapsing out of his ground with just a single to his name only to scramble back when Dickwella made a hash of his glovework. By the time Adil Rashid (31) and Leach had come and gone he still had just 16 from 65 deliveries and a number 11 for company.
After Anderson reversed an incorrect lbw decision off his first ball, Curran threw caution to the wind.
There were sixes down the ground, another elaborately sliced over backward point with a big swing of the arms and another deposited flat over square. The latter took him past 50, the third time he has passed that landmark with a maximum in Tests.
A shocking drop at long on by Pushpakumara extended his stay a few extra balls before he finally holed out down the ground.