Alex Hales and Jonny Bairstow were the much-needed exceptions as England otherwise failed to deal with traditional seam and swing from Sri Lanka on day one of the Investec Test series at Headingley.
While captain Alastair Cook fell short of becoming the first Englishman to reach 10,000 runs, the first to falter in a three-wicket burst from debutant Dasun Shanaka, his opening partner Hales stood firm on the way to a career-best unbeaten 71 out of 171 for five.
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Pre-series conjecture was that, after his patchy maiden Test campaign in South Africa last winter, Hales was the one who had to prove he could adapt to the demands of Test cricket.
Yet he dug in, on a day reduced to 53 overs by rain which wiped out the evening session, as others came and went quickly - some to shots which appeared to belong to an occasion other than setting up a Test match after being put in under cloud cover in Leeds.
Cook's was the first of three wickets to fall in eight balls to third-change Shanaka (three for 30) - swiftly followed by those of number three Nick Compton and Joe Root, both for ducks, as five men departed for the addition of 34 runs either side of lunch.
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It was not until Bairstow (54no) joined Hales that England's case was restated, in a partnership which more than doubled the total.
The opener reached his second Test half-century when he forced Nuwan Pradeep past cover for his 10th four from 112 balls, and Bairstow went on to pass his 50 in just 59 - having hit six fours, and a six over long-on off Rangana Herath.
The hosts had made slow but steadfast progress through the first 90 minutes until, with 16 of the 36 he needed for five figures, Cook edged an attempted cover-drive behind.
That was the end of an opening stand of 49 - and the start of England's problems as Shanaka, who struck with his seventh delivery in Test cricket, did so again three balls later when Compton was caught low down at slip.
Most eyes were on Cook from the outset, but Hales was under the microscope too as he tries to establish himself at the top of the order.
He needed 13 balls to get off the mark, with a reassuring boundary when he clipped Pradeep off his pads, then had a minor moment of fortune - edging a second four just wide of the slips off Shaminda Eranga to double his score.
Hales' patience was rewarded with two fours off the middle through the off-side in one Angelo Mathews over - and all continued to go well for England, until Cook succumbed.
With Compton then gone in the same over, there was another shock in store for the home crowd when Root trooped off scoreless too - having edged an attempted push-drive off Shanaka to gully.
England's debutant James Vince closed out the session and opened his account after lunch, a single off the 19th ball he faced.
He then collected two driven boundaries in three balls off Eranga, only for the bowler to exact swift revenge when Vince - like Root before him - edged to gully.
Ben Stokes' attempt to counter-attack brought three boundaries in nine balls, and ended there when he chipped an easy catch to mid-on off Pradeep.
But Bairstow at last gave Hales lasting support - more than that, in fact, as he took a dominant role in their unbroken stand of 88.
Sri Lanka gave England's wicketkeeper some handy leeway early on, abandoning the full length which had served their seamers so well in favour of trying to test him with the short ball.
Bairstow, on his home ground where he has been so prolific over the past 12 months, needed no second bidding to help put England in better shape than had seemed likely.
:: Both teams wore black armbands at Headingley as a mark of respect for those who have lost their lives and homes this week in the Sri Lanka floods and mudslides.