Peter Kirsten and John Wright lived in a flat above a butcher's shop in the early 1980s. Wright did most of the cooking.

"He was a very good cook. So he ate New Zealand lamb and I ate South African lamb," Kirsten says, with a smile in his voice that suggests the one-liner has been repeated for at least 25 years. Of course, the pair actually ate English lamb, and spent their time chatting about sport.

"We both came from strong rugby cultures, so there would be a lot of banter about that," Kirsten remembers. "And we thought about cricket the same way, so it was just good karma."

Their friendship flowered in Derbyshire, where they were both contracted as overseas players. They decided to share a flat on realising how well they got on and that they could cut costs that way. For both, cricket was a job as much as it was a passion, but there was one significant difference. For Wright, county cricket was simply what he did in the New Zealand winter. For Kirsten, it was the highest level of cricket he could play at the time.

South Africa's sporting isolation, which lasted in varying degrees from the 1960s to the 1990s as part of the worldwide movement against apartheid, meant at least two generations of sportspeople were unable to play sport at national level. For South African cricketers, England provided an opportunity to play with and against quality players from other parts of the world, and to make a year-round career in sport, which otherwise would not have been possible.

"It gave me a chance to face bowlers like Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram - people we'd only ever heard about. That was an unbelievable challenge," Jimmy Cook, Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1990, who scored over 7500 runs in three seasons at Somerset, says. "When we as a county used to play against international teams, that was like my Test match."

Brian Rose, Director of Cricket at Taunton, who recruited Cook, agreed that for South Africans there was markedly more meaning to their success in county cricket. "I think that's true because their Test careers were finished before they even began," he says.

Rose took a keen interest in South African players because of his association with the country. He had taught and coached in Cape Town, at South African College Schools (known as SACS), and he first saw Cook in the 1975-76 season, playing at Newlands. People who Rose knew, like Clive Rice and Eddie Barlow, also spoke well of Cook. "Jimmy came highly recommended by everyone I spoke to," Rose recalls. When Somerset needed an overseas player, Cook was an obvious choice.

For Cook, the opportunity to travel to England was a no-brainer. He had stopped playing football, which had occupied him in the winter, four years before Rose called, and had "always wanted to give county cricket a try". After checking with Rice that the deal was reasonable and the remuneration fair, Cook accepted.

Kirsten got his chance in a similar word-of-mouth way. Barlow had a "sort of trial" for a few Western Province players to see who would be interested in playing in England and Kirsten, who came out on top, was put in touch with Derbyshire.

Once in England, it was as though as the world had opened up. Both Cook and Kirsten recall learning and seeing more than they ever did at home. Perhaps more importantly for the counties, both enjoyed immense success in unfamiliar conditions. Even today, South African players sometimes struggle to adjust to the movement on English surfaces, but Cook took to it as though he had played there all his life.

"I see county cricket not only as a cricketing experience but a lifestyle one. They come out of school, they must learn to live without mom and dad and grow up a little bit"
Jimmy Cook

Cook put it down to good timing, not with the bat but the year he first started in Somerset, 1989. "My home wicket at Taunton was, at the time, the best batting wicket in England and slightly faster than the other wickets," he says. "It suited me down to the ground. Early on in my stint there, I managed to play some very slow but longer innings and got used to the conditions. Having played at the Wanderers for so many years, where the pitches were very bowler-friendly, I got to Taunton and found that pitches were batsmen-friendly. So I loved batting every day."

Another aspect of county cricket foreigners can be stumped by is the rigorous schedule. For Cook, that was something to be enjoyed. "To certain people, playing every day isn't ideal, because they want breaks, but I just loved it," he says.

There was nothing about county cricket Cook did not relish. In his time there, he made Somerset a home, and his wife and two young sons spent time with him there as well. "They didn't go to school because both my wife and I were schoolteachers, so we just got the work from the school. Mom did the work with them in the morning and they came down to the cricket in the afternoon."

Apart from the lifestyle, Cook says the most important thing county cricket did for him was that it allowed him to keep up with trends in the game. He would often bring home ideas on field placements or particular shots to apply in South Africa.

The same went for Kirsten, who remembers seeing and copying the reverse sweep in 1979, and credits county cricket with improving his approach to spin bowling. He also talks about playing a version of cricket that he sees as one of the forerunners to 20-overs cricket. "We used to play ten-over cricket when it rained and our limited-overs games were cut short. We were playing that sort of cricket back then, you know," he said, with a laugh.

Cook, Kirsten, Rice, Stephen Jeffries, Barry Richards and Mike Procter all had opportunities to become better players in the top tier of the English game. But players of colour had to settle for lower levels of competition. League cricket was often where they sought out contracts, and many made a great success of it. Dik Abed was one of the most prominent professionals in the Lancashire League, while Omar Henry made a name for himself in the Manchester League.

It was there that he got an offer from a Scottish businessman, who was also involved in cricket. "He read about me in the Manchester Evening News and asked me to go and play in Scotland," Henry says. "I didn't even know they played cricket in Scotland. When I got to Glasgow and I saw the cricket field with golf courses on either side, I thought, 'This is not a bad place to be.'"

It was an unexpectedly good result from a decision taken on the fly, to play cricket in the United Kingdom. Henry was 24 years old, lived with his parents and did not have many responsibilities when he took the plunge. "I gave myself three years, where I thought I could live hand to mouth and try to play overseas. It was just my luck that I made it," he says. "I also saw myself as a bit of a pioneer for other players of colour who did not always have the same opportunities."

Henry was one of very few non-white cricketers who attracted the attentions of a major county, largely because of the lack of exposure players of colour had. South African Cricket Board (non-white) matches were rarely covered overseas. Kirsten thinks that if they were, many more South Africans would have made careers in England. "County scouts were often unaware of the potential of black players," Kirsten says. "It's unfortunate because many of those guys would have done very well there."

Since readmission, the South African connection to county cricket has expanded to include all players. Hashim Amla played for Nottinghamshire, Ashwell Prince for Lancashire, Alviro Petersen is currently with Essex, and Vernon Philander represents Somerset, having been handpicked by Rose to join them.

Rose has maintained his links with South Africa. Cook coached there for six years and was in charge of youth development, until the role required a full-time employee, which Cook could not commit too. Cook also introduced Graeme Smith, who he coached as a schoolboy, to Somerset. The South African captain led the county to the T20 title in 2005.

Cook regularly organises for boys who have just finished school to play league cricket in England, and says he would recommend it as a must-do experience for budding professionals. "If anyone got an opportunity, I'd tell them to jump at it," he says. "I see it not only as a cricketing experience but a lifestyle one. They come out of school, they must learn to live without mom and dad and grow up a little bit."

Henry agrees, saying although the cricket education is important, it's the bigger picture that matters more. "What was possibly more important than cricket is that I grew up as a human being."

Money may speak louder than this mantra, though. With leagues such as the IPL contracting players for significant chunks of time, cricketers dedicating time to play on the county circuit is becoming less common. Rose admits that counties sometimes struggle to secure overseas players. "It is much more difficult. The Future Tours Programme is a nightmare for domestic cricket," he says, although he has found a positive for the local game. "It allows for the development of local young players, which could prove a great benefit for English cricket in the long term."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent