In the 1980s, when football was rotting, English cricket developed a penchant for leaping off the sports pages on to page one. Sometimes it would be sex; sometimes drugs; sometimes even cricket (beating Australia 1981; losing to the Netherlands 1989). Mostly, though, it was race.

And nothing created quite as much sensation as the arrival, in March 1982, of a dozen leading English cricketers in the pariah state of South Africa, ready to play a month’s worth of unauthorised matches for sums – in the high-five-figures sterling – that were very tempting to the underpaid pros of that era.

Hotfoot behind them, but welcomed less warmly by the ruling whites, came Her Majesty’s Press, with yours truly representing the Guardian. I have three abiding memories of the opening day’s play, in the charming old ground in Pretoria, citadel and capital of apartheid.

One was that Geoff Boycott opened the batting to the initial delight of a crowd that, because of the hated regime’s sporting isolation, had been starved of the thrills of world cricket for 12 long years. He showed them what they were missing by scoring two whole runs in the first hour.

The second was that, for reasons I forget, the team’s captain, Graham Gooch, held his close-of-play press conference in the ladies’ toilets. Third, as he declined to answer all pertinent questions, a steam engine – already long gone from Britain’s railways – whistled evocatively from the nearby station.

Thus began a succession of unauthorised boycott-busting tours, from Australian, Sri Lankan and West Indian players as well, that went on throughout the decade until, in 1990, Ali Bacher, the sinuously political boss of South African cricket, made an uncharacteristic misjudgment. He recruited another team of English rebels, under Mike Gatting, at the very moment when apartheid was finally collapsing and Nelson Mandela was about to be released after 27 (27!) years in jail. They were almost hounded out of the country.

Less than two years later, after skilful pivoting by both Bacher and the African National Congress, eager to offer whites an incentive for negotiations, the new South Africa was officially welcomed into the global cricket family. And ever since, England v South Africa matches have been more fiercely and compellingly contested than even the Ashes.

Thirty-five years have passed since that bizarre opening day. The original rebels, who broke no laws but acted contrary to international agreements, served three-year bans from international cricket. This, however, is a forgiving game. Gooch later became England captain; Gatting president of MCC; David Graveney, who managed the 1990 fiasco, chairman of England selectors; and Boycott remains some people’s favourite cricket expert.

In general, the very top players did not join the rebels. Some took a high moral tone, not necessarily insincerely, but it was also true that Ian Botham, David Gower, Viv Richards etc had too much to lose. The rands were most attractive to the second division: the ageing, the out-of-favour, the fringe internationals, the pissed-off. Few of the whites who went have had cause for regret, though of the five tourists from Jamaica, where feelings ran high, three felt forced to emigrate, one became a recluse and the gifted Richard Austin died a drug-addled vagrant.

The more thoughtful rebels, such as the late Bob Woolmer, argued that it was all unfair. The rigid segregation of the apartheid doctrine had already softened slightly by 1982 – the non-white Omar Henry was allowed to play in that series. Woolmer himself coached players of all races out there. Cricket was by then “multiracial”, and that was the original demand. But opponents inside and outside South Africa now wanted more: “no normal sport in an abnormal society” became the mantra. Henry was seen as window-dressing; even some of his family disowned him.

And so, 35 years on, what has changed? On Friday the 2017 South Africans began their tour of England with a warm-up in Hove: the now-customary mish-mash lies ahead: one-dayers, the Champions Trophy, Twenty20s, plus four Tests shoehorned into 34 days.

But here is something quite startling. Of the 15 players in the one-day squad, eight are non-white. “This has happened without fuss,” according to André Odendaal, who helped drive the process. “There’s nobody in the squad now whose ability can be questioned. The talent is coming through.”

There are two key words in post-apartheid South Africa: “transition” and “transformation”, and they are not to be confused. The peaceful transition to democracy from the tyranny of the minority remains one of the great triumphs of the modern world. The road to transformation is much rockier. And sport has been a microcosm of that.

Of the eight, six are from the small, always sophisticated, always cricket-mad but – under apartheid – downtrodden Indian and mixed-race communities. Only two are from the 80% black African majority. “That shows the inequality that we still have deal with. The sporting infrastructure remains essentially an apartheid system,” says Odendaal, former CEO of the Newlands cricket ground and a pioneering historian who nailed the myth that the indigenous Africans had no taste or talent for cricket.

At provincial level, quotas (the word “targets” is preferred) still exist: three Africans must be in each team. According to Reverse Sweep, a fascinating new history of post-apartheid cricket by Ashwin Desai, this has had the side-effect of giving these players exceptional bargaining power.

Internationally, there is no formal rule but there are invisible forces at work that can cut both ways. Selectors have to deal with political pressure on the one hand – an all-white team would now be anathema – and white supporters, who remain crucial to the cricket economy, on the other.

“I think it’s almost inevitable that when your cricket has been traditionally white, that’s what people to some extent want,” says John Campbell, a former cricket writer and now a leading Johannesburg barrister. “Black players have to prove they are unquestionably good. It’s not discrimination in the sense of apartheid. It’s just something that hasn’t been worked through yet.”

And the road to success almost always still lies through the elite schools – some private, some public – with sumptuous facilities that have long dominated South African society. Once all-white, these schools now prize nothing more than a charming, polite and, for preference, clever black kid with a sumptuous off-drive or a fearsome yorker.

Both Kagiso Rabada and Andile Phehlukwayo, the two Africans in this squad, came through this route. Phehlukwayo’s mother worked as a maid for a cricket-loving woman in Durban who became his guardian. This is hardly equality of opportunity: it is a kind of co-option. The old parallel structures that existed at least among Indian and mixed-race players under segregation have largely disintegrated. Black township cricket is even more rudimentary.

But it is the fruit of a normal society in the sense that class is now the main determinant of opportunity, not race. And it hardly provides fewer chances than exist in England, where there are now only three well-trodden routes into the national team: through independent schools, existing cricketing families and, all too often, South Africa. England’s latest opener, Keaton Jennings, ticks all three boxes. He went to the elite King Edward VII School in Johannesburg; his dad would have kept wicket for South Africa but for the boycott; and he is marginally qualified for England through his mother.

The sad truth is that the rands with which Bacher lured so many famous names are not worth a lot. English cricket is far more lucrative, and not just at the top level. Thus it is that county cricket has long been filled with South Africans either as designated overseas players, official Britons with unconvincing accents or through the perhaps-soon-to-be-abolished EU Kolpak loophole. They are no longer the top players but those from precisely the aging/fringe men/passed-over/pissed-off cohort that staffed the rebel teams that went the other way in the past.

These South Africans are doing nothing wrong except looking after themselves and their families – which is what the rebels believed they were doing, too. In a game that is becoming an individual sport rather than team-oriented, it is just more familiar these days.

On that last rebel tour I ran into John Emburey – the only English player to be a double-rebel – in a Durban hotel. “What are you doing here?” he asked, knowing I was not in favour. “Working,” I said. “Me, too,” he replied. “What’s the difference?” All these years later, I have still not come up with a zinging response.

I might have said he was bringing aid and comfort to a disgraceful regime and I was trying my best to annoy it. The sporting boycott was unjust: it penalised sportsmen as a substitute for straightforward political action. But it was nowhere near as unjust as apartheid and it did hasten its downfall and pave the way for a new South Africa. Hence the rainbow-nation squad at Hove.

Jennings Sr never had the chance of professional fulfilment by testing his skills at the highest level. But nor did all the non-white cricketers denied by apartheid. Had the boycott not happened there might have been no peaceful transition, and the male Jenningses might have been compelled to test themselves in another way: to fight, and maybe die, in defence of a wicked system.