From a playing point of view, one of the outstanding features in the early years was Canterbury's defeat of Australia in 1878. Until 1899 all visiting teams to New Zealand played against odds. The Canterbury team consisted of 15 players and, largely because of brilliant fielding, dismissed the Australians – a strong side including such great players as C. Bannerman, F. R. Spofforth, W. L. Murdoch, D. Gregory, J. Blackham, and H. F. Boyle – for 46. With A. M. Ollivier making 36, Canterbury reached 135, although Spofforth took nine for 17. A Canterbury fast bowler, E. Fuller, took eight for 35 when Australia scored 143, and Canterbury scored the 55 runs needed for the loss of eight wickets. Canterbury enjoyed another notable success in the 1893–94 season when it beat a New South Wales team by an innings and seven runs. The hero on that occasion was H. Demaus, who scored a century for Canterbury.
The first New Zealand team went into the field at Christchurch in February 1894, but only two seasons later, again at Lancaster Park, Christchurch, a New Zealand team beat New South Wales by the handsome margin of 142 runs. The great Otago left-arm bowler, A. H. Fisher, took five for 20 in the Australians' second innings, after top scoring in New Zealand's second innings with 52 not out.
When the M.C.C. sent a team to New Zealand in 1906–07 it was beaten twice. Canterbury was again successful, by five wickets, and at the Basin Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand won a very hard-fought game by 56 runs. Fisher had a large share of the credit for this win also, although the New Zealander A. Williams, batting with an injured elbow, played a gallant innings of 72 not out.
In the 1924–25 season a strong Victorian team toured New Zealand and Wellington won much praise for defeating the visitors by 19 runs. The victory was due in the main to splendid bowling by F. T. Badcock and W. S. Brice, each of whom took nine wickets in the match. In 1935–36 Wellington had another win, this time over E. R. T. Holmes's M.C.C. team. Wellington's win was by only 14 runs. The M.C.C. needed 145 runs to win, but E. D. Blundell took five for 50. In the 1960–61 season New Zealand beat a strong M.C.C. team in one of the unofficial tests and drew the other two, the first time New Zealand has won a series against an overseas team.
But the most notable victory New Zealand has won was its first in an official test. This was against the West Indies, in the last test of the series in 1956. Fine bowling by H. B. Cave and a resolute innings by the captain, J. R. Reid, were mainly responsible for the victory.
But New Zealand has had other triumphs. In 1927 a team was sent to England for the first time, and it was a daring venture from every point of view. No tests were played; a good many of the games were second-class fixtures, but New Zealand came out of the tour with a fine record and a splendid reputation for aggressive batting. The team often scored huge totals at incredible speed.
Then, in 1931, New Zealand played in a test match in England for the first time, at Lord's. New Zealand was dismissed for 224 and the England team, which included such great stars as Hammond, Duleepsinhji, Jardine, Woolley, Ames, and Allen, made 454. New Zealand, from that depressing position, fought back splendidly. C. S. Dempster made 120; M. L. Page, 104; R. C. Blunt, 96; and New Zealand was able to declare at 469 for nine wickets. England needed 240 runs and had lost five for 146 at the end of the match – a great recovery by New Zealand.
In 1948 an Australian team under D. G. Bradman went through England without defeat, the first team to do so. And in 1949 the New Zealanders, under W. A. Hadlee, very nearly repeated the feat. The team's only loss was on a rain-affected wicket, to Oxford University. Moreover, the New Zealanders scored on their tour a record number of runs, even more than the Australians in the previous summer. The batting of B. Sutcliffe, M. P. Donnelly, and W. M. Wallace, in particular, delighted English spectators. All four tests were drawn and a profit of over £15,000 was made. This was in every way a triumph for New Zealand.
The most recent overseas tour by New Zealand was also its most successful. Reid led a team in South Africa in 1961–62, and the first test was lost by only 30 runs. After drawing the second, New Zealand won the third. The fourth was lost, but a splendid all-round performance by Reid was primarily responsible for New Zealand winning the final test and squaring the rubber. These were the first overseas test victories. Reid's total of 1,915 runs in South Africa was the highest ever accomplished by a touring batsman.