Cricket can almost certainly claim to be the first organised game played regularly in New Zealand. That is not surprising, for cricket was tremendously popular in England early in the nineteenth century. The naturalist Charles Darwin writes of having seen a cricket match in progress near a mission station in North Auckland in 1835, and there are records which suggest the game began a year or two before that. Even before the founding of Wellington in 1840 missionaries were active in New Zealand, and they brought with them the clergyman's traditional love of the summer game. In the early 1830s orders for cricket equipment were being sent to England.
So cricket began with New Zealand's beginnings. In Wellington there was a newspaper account of a holiday match at the end of 1842, but the first fully recorded match was played at Nelson in March 1844. This game was between a Nelson team and the surveyors of the New Zealand Land Company. Nelson won handsomely. At that stage runs were still notches – the earliest scorers in England made cuts in sticks to record the score. Tall hats, cravats, trousers tight at the ankle were the fashion, and it was the custom for matches to end with both teams sitting down to gargantuan meals. A little later, when teams began to play outside their own immediate district, such celebrations frequently took place before, as well as after, matches. Often the dinners were paid for by the losers, for cricket had not quite emerged from the gambling fever which possessed it in its very early days.
Cricket in New Zealand was given an impetus by the arrival of troops from England in the 1860s, but interprovincial matches had started before the Maori Wars. The first of them was between Auckland and Wellington in 1860. There were many weeks of earnest negotiation before the match, and this was not entirely satisfactory, for when the Auckland players arrived at Wellington by steamer they found their hosts were unprepared. This psychological advantage may account in part for Auckland's victory by four wickets. It was two more years before a second interprovincial match took place, this time between Wellington and Nelson, at Nelson. The Wellington team then went on to Auckland by steamer and played Nelson again on its return.
In the South Island cricket also started early. In December 1848, only nine months after Otago had been founded, the cricketers of Dunedin issued a challenge to Wellington, but the game was never played. The first recorded match at Dunedin, on 1 January 1849, was between married and single teams. It was played on the site of the Octagon, with bats from local wood and balls made by a local shoemaker. In Christchurch the first match was at Hagley Park on 16 December 1851, the first anniversary of the founding of the province.
The first interprovincial match in the south, however, was not played until January 1864. This was on the occasion of the extremely ambitious Dunedin cricket carnival. Four teams took part in it – Otago, Southland, Canterbury, and George Parr's All-England Eleven, the first from overseas to visit New Zealand. It came from Australia on the City of Dunedin and berthed at the little Port Chalmers pier. There was a luncheon for the visitors and then a procession to Dunedin, which was en féte for the occasion. There were mounted troopers at the head of the procession, a coach for the Englishmen drawn by six white horses, several other coaches, and, at the rear, horsemen three abreast. The tour had been arranged and sponsored by a Dunedin publican, Shadrach Jones, the carnival by J. Kissling, and it was a tremendous success. The Canterbury and Southland teams also arrived by sea. After such a sound start cricket progressed rather slowly. Canterbury and Otago began their long series of annual matches in 1864, but in the north transport difficulties kept Auckland out of touch with its southern rivals for some years. When the second overseas team visited New Zealand in 1876–77 – Lillywhite's All-England side – hair-raising stories were told of its coach passage to the West Coast.
Cricket, however, became firmly established in the main centres, clubs were formed, and interclub games played. By the time Lillywhite's team toured, interest in the game was intense, and when an Australian side played Canterbury in 1877–78 the attendance for the three days totalled 25,000. Cricket was, of course, the national game at that time. Other summer sports were hardly known, and organised rugby football had barely begun.
After Parr's team in 1864 there was a remarkable succession of visits from overseas sides – three from England, three Australian elevens, a team from Tasmania, one from New South Wales – all by 1890.
For all these tours, individual cricket associations made their own arrangements, but when a second New South Wales team was due to arrive in 1893–94, the leading administrators in the various provinces felt a New Zealand team should be pitted against the visitors. A. M. Ollivier, of Christchurch, was given the task of selecting the first New Zealand team, which met New South Wales at Lancaster Park on 15 February 1894. New Zealand, although beaten by 160 runs, gave a good performance.