For 21 years South African cricket fans lived in a twilight world of implausible allegiances. They supported Manchester United or Spurs, Wales when they played rugby. Some went the other way, giving the traditional New Year's fixture between Western Province and Transvaal at Newlands a cachet it probably didn't deserve.

Some of us - count me in this group - invented traditions and affiliations on the flimsiest evidence. Embarrassing as it now sounds, I supported Mike Gatting's England as they romped through Australia in 1986-87, because I was born in Hendon, a suburb in north-west London.

A year later, huddling around a small black-and-white Philips television set, I watched Will Carling's England defeat Australia 28-19 at Twickenham. A South African cricketing alternative wasn't yet in sight, and so I cheered when Simon Halliday scored England's victory-clenching try. I had to support someone. What else was there to do?

At the time I lived in a post-graduate digs in Cape Town, nursing my bursary with exaggerated care. Most mornings I went out onto the balcony of our flat to look at the harbour, where nothing much was going on. Once a week a big white Safmarine container vessel from Hamburg or Southampton moored in port, but for the most part the basin was dead, save for the trawler fleet and the odd careworn freighter.

Squeezed tight by the trade, cultural and sporting boycott, Cape Town was not the chichi paradise it has become. If anything, the sleep from which it suffered seemed to be getting deeper. This was no place for an adventurous young man.

Three years later I was living in London, stringing for a leftie South African weekly. They asked me to cover a match at Lord's between a Transvaal Invitation XI and the MCC. The visitors were a good young side, but there was something vaguely clandestine about it all. Lord's was empty that chilly midweek day, the concessions closed. The contest was devoid of tradition or large meaning. Cricket on the moon.

A left-arm seamer called Graham Yates had Mike Atherton caught and bowled, and a young prodigy called Victor Vermeulen - later to tragically break his neck diving into a swimming pool - caught the eye.

With Gatting's ill-conceived rebel tour to South Africa a thing of the past, much of the cricket-loving world was waiting to see if South Africa would be readmitted to the ICC. It was surely too much to ask that they might also sneak into the 1992 World Cup.

The best thing about the '92 World Cup was the overwhelming sense of gratitude. People were so happy that they cried. People you wouldn't have thought of as criers had a good blub

A couple of heady months later I discovered that the problem for a homesick South African adrift in London was that there was nowhere to watch your team when they were miraculously readmitted to the world game. The lightning 1991 tour to India had come, and gone and in search of World Cup cricket from Australasia, I pounded the Kilburn High Road, finding nothing but camping shops and dingy Irish pubs. Surely one of them would show cricket? Cold and tired, eventually I found one, dragging my girlfriend inside. We nursed our beers and watched, aghast, as New Zealand's Gavin Larsen and Chris Harris tied us up in knots. It was a hopeless case, an excruciating comedown after the magic of beating Australia in South Africa's opening World Cup game at the SCG.

The best thing about the '92 World Cup was the overwhelming sense of gratitude. People were so happy that they cried. Steve Tshwete, the minister of sport elect, cried on Kepler Wessels' shoulder in the SCG dressing room, while Kepler cried himself. Ali Bacher cried. People you wouldn't have thought of as criers had a good blub.

One Sunday afternoon two years later, walking on the turf at Lord's after South Africa had won the first Test by 356 runs, I cried. They were vaguely embarrassed, private tears but the game had been so emotional, so memorable - Fanie de Villiers torturing Craig White, Jonty Rhodes swatting Angus Fraser into the Mound Stand for six - that I didn't know what else to do. We were back. It aroused emotions too subtle and rare to name.

Later during that series I watched the best innings I've ever seen from a South African in the post-readmission period: Daryll Cullinan's 94 in a losing cause at The Oval. After Lord's, the teams went to Headingley, where Peter Kirsten and Graeme Hick scored tons in a drawn Test. Back in London, de Villiers, the hero of Sydney earlier that year, was foolish enough to hit Devon Malcolm square on the helmet. "You guys are going to pay for this," Malcolm is reputed to have said. "You guys are history."

With four ducks and six single-figure scores, Malcolm gutted the South African second innings. Riding the steep bounce with courage and delicacy, only Cullinan stood firm. Some South Africans jabbed their bat down on yorkers after they were bowled; the top order scuttled back to the pavilion like the three blind mice. Cullinan was last out to Darren Gough, England galloping home by eight wickets on the fourth day to square the series.

The next time South Africa played England was in Centurion, the ground close to the Jukskei River and a magnet for rain. A debut went in that first Test to Shaun Pollock, a rangy fast bowler, who, when he batted, hit the ball with careless aplomb.

A year later a South Africa cap was given to Herschelle Gibbs at Eden Gardens in Kolkata. There have been more important players for South Africa in the last 25 years - Jacques Kallis' grim charm, Makhaya Ntini's unflagging energy - but no two players pleased the aesthetes through the nineties and across the cusp of the fresh decade like Pollock and Gibbs.

Behind this all, a darker current. On that very tour of India in 1996-97, Bacher foisted the Mohinder Armanath benefit game on a weary party at the end of the tour. The players were furious and eager to get home. Their flirtation with the possibility of throwing that game came to fruition on their next tour to India, where Hansie Cronje seduced Gibbs and others to underperform in the five-match ODI series, besmirching the sport.

Until a revisionist history of the world game in the 1990s is published, we'll never know quite how rife match-fixing was. It is safe to say, however, that other boards handled their scandals entirely differently.

On the field itself, a theme was taking shape. South Africa were losing or drawing Tests at home they might have been expected to win, while they were winning away when they might reasonably have been expected to lose. Pollock came to the fore in taking five for 37 against Pakistan in Faisalabad in 1997 (Pat Symcox scoring 55, 81, and taking 3 for 8 in the Pakistan second innings) as the hosts couldn't manage the 145 needed for victory. In 2000, Cronje's men won Tests in Mumbai (with a largely pace attack) and Bangalore. Tests were later won in Karachi (2007) in a victorious series, as well as in Ahmedabad and Nagpur on consecutive drawn series in India.

South Africa have always been handy at winning away and the golden period was forged when Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur managed to cocoon the side from increasingly dogged political interference to win back to back away series in England and Australia across six months in 2008. There have been big series wins (take the 5-0 drubbing of West Indies in 1998-99) but no more cherished prize sits on the mantelpiece of the South African game.

For all the moments of magic - who will ever forget de Villiers, legs akimbo, tossing the Glenn McGrath lob into the air in 1994? - South African cricket is a protean, difficult-to-understand beast, with an almost perverse ability to confound. How, for example, can a side as well-rounded as the 1999 team to the World Cup in England contrive to lose it? Perhaps Winston Churchill's famous quote about Russia brings us closer to understanding. "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key." In South Africa's case that key is surely to be found in an increasingly settled country, less at odds with itself than it once was. We live in hope.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg