Steven Finn's three wickets gave England an outstanding chance to put the defence of their ICC World Twenty20 back on track as they restricted New Zealand to 148 for six at Pallekele.
Finn (three for 16) took two with the new ball - including danger man Brendon McCullum - and then returned in the 17th over to see off another of the Kiwis' best hitters Ross Taylor.
After an opening Super Eight defeat for both teams, it seemed only the winner of this afternoon's match would retain realistic prospects of progressing to the semi-finals.
New Zealand, who won the toss, appeared to be up against it at the interval after only James Franklin got going to top score with a round 50 from number six.
This was not a comparable pitch, two strips across, to the one on which England had lost a much higher-scoring encounter with West Indies two days ago. There was still some pace, but plenty of help for the spinners in particular.
Even so, England had obvious designs on a successful chase. A swinging yorker from Finn saw off opener Martin Guptill lbw, and then he picked up the prize wicket of McCullum - making room to hit the fast bowler over the ring to the short off-side boundary but succeeding only in edging down to Luke Wright at third-man.
Graeme Swann, operating in his accustomed post-powerplay role, immediately had Rob Nicol mistiming a slog-sweep into the hands of deep midwicket. And by the time Kane Williamson was fourth out in the 12th over, caught behind trying to cut the returning Danny Briggs, it was clear New Zealand were having to reassess what a par total might be.
They remained conservative until Franklin took 16 runs, including a big hit over midwicket for New Zealand's first six, from Briggs' final over. With five to go, the total was therefore 96 for four - with Taylor and Franklin established.
Finn did for the former, who clumped a pull straight to deep midwicket, and in the same over the England strike bowler's aggravating party piece of knocking over the stumps in delivery denied Franklin a perfectly-struck and well-deserved four past mid-off - umpire Asad Rauf signalling dead-ball.
Franklin stayed the course, though, for his 33-ball half-century as he and Nathan McCullum did enough in the final three overs to narrow England's advantage.