Ask any sports-mad New Zealander about the influence of Maori players on All Blacks rugby and they’ll tell you it was there from the beginning. One of the first All Blacks “greats” was George Nepia, a brilliant fullback who, to this day, is a household name in the country — despite having played his last All Blacks test match 85 years ago.
Proud to play
Maori stars have also been proud to pull on their jersey for New Zealand’s official Maori All Blacks team since 1888: a tradition that expresses New Zealand’s unique culture through sport.
But ask New Zealanders about their official national Maori cricket team, and you’ll probably get a quizzical look. The ground-breaking team was short-lived. It included future BLACKCAPS Jesse Ryder, who was only 15 at the time, and Pete McGlashan and played its first and only ICC tournament in Auckland in 2001, storming to the Pacific Cup title at Eden Park against the national sides of other Pacific nations like Fiji, Tonga and the Cook Islands.
The problem was New Zealand Maori were so strong by comparison that the international body decided not to invite them back — and so the inaugural team dissolved.
That’s relatively recent history, but records reveal that Maori have played cricket in New Zealand since the early 19th Century — as early as 1832, when colonial missionary Henry Williams wrote about a game in Paihia in the Bay of Islands. Like rugby, the English sport had been introduced by British settlers and missionaries like Williams — and both games quickly gained popularity.
In 1835, famous naturalist Charles Darwin watched Maori cricket in Northland, on his visit to New Zealand. There were formal Maori cricket clubs as early as the 1880s, and sepia-toned first XI photographs show that Maori boys’ colleges like Hawke’s Bay’s Te Aute College had cricket teams around the same time.
High profile players
Higher profile Maori players included John 'Jack' Taiaroa, who represented Hawke’s Bay as a batsman through the 1890s; and John Hopere Wharewiti Uru, who played for Canterbury as a fast bowler in the 1890s. When New Zealand’s national women’s team played its first international match in 1935, it also included New Zealand’s first Maori Test players — the late Agnes Ell (whose brother, Jack Ell, played first-class cricket for Wellington between 1933 and 1946); and Hilda Buck, of Ngati Mutunga descent.
In men’s Test cricket, one of the fastest bowlers New Zealand ever produced — still talked about as one of the fastest in world cricket history — was Gary Bartlett, in the 1960s. Bartlett’s grandmother was adopted and her birth records are missing, but Bartlett is certain that she was Maori, which would have made him the first Maori BLACKCAP.
"I know I've got Maori blood in me," says Bartlett, who lives in Blenheim. "I can just feel it. People know. But the problem is, short of genetic testing — which I've thought about from time to time, but is prohibitively expensive — I can't prove it."
First cricket captain
The late Rona McKenzie, who captained New Zealand in seven tests against England and Australia between 1954 and 1961, was the first New Zealand cricket captain who was also Maori. And in more recent years, New Zealand international cricket has featured many more players of Maoris heritage, including Adam Parore, Daryl Tuffey, Heath Davis, Maia Lewis, Tana Canning, Ryder, Peter and Sara McGlashan and current BLACKCAPS star Trent Boult.
And yet, Maori remain better known for their prowess in rugby than in cricket. Looking to change that is Hamilton’s Graeme Stewart, a blend of Tainui (Waikato Maori) and Scottish ancestry who is Scotland’s team manager in the current 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup.
Stewart was instrumental in forming the first official domestic Maori cricket side in 2011 — Northern Maori, which plays under the auspices of the Hamilton-based Northern Districts Cricket Association that covers the upper half of the North Island.
“Cricket is such a character-building game and my dream is to see Maori players recognised as mentors for our Maori kids," says Stewart.
"We have significant Maori communities in Poverty Bay, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Northland, with cricketing talents just waiting to be discovered — if we can just get them interested in learning the game. That’s why we created Northern Maori. It’s a targeted intervention, if you like.”
Representative Maori sides
The team, which is now playing other representative Maori sides around the country and Pacific re[resentative teams like the Cook Islands, created a dedicated pathway to inspire more Maori teenagers to play cricket — instead of just the traditional winter team sports of rugby, league and basketball that dominate those regions.
“The more talented Maori cricketers we discover and encourage as a result, the more Maori kids we will have growing up to be cricket coaches, role models and supportive parents down at the club,” says Stewart. “It’s a win not only for New Zealand cricket overall, but for all those communities heading into our future."