WHEN IT CAME TO BUSINESS VENTURES, Yorkshireman Thomas Lord was on the ball. In 1787, he spotted an opportunity at the first location of the Lord’s cricket ground at Dorset Fields, near London. Back then, he had the land enclosed for the toffs, who were happy to pay the entry fee of sixpence to seek respite from the plebs who came to watch them play.

They could now enjoy the game privately over scones with homemade jam and Cornish clotted cream, finger sandwiches, cakes, and other dainties. For a more memorable afternoon, there was champagne and even a string quartet. The conversation, we assume, revolved around the game, the weather, and, given the advent of the Industrial Revolution, business as well.

Two centuries later, with the corn and spinach puffs, truffle tortes, lemonade, and the wines and beers, the spread looks familiar. But with the addition of California rolls, pav bhaaji, chicken biriyani with salan, and kheer mohan with rabdi, cricket’s organisers in the subcontinent are now trying to recreate a similar atmosphere with a modern-day twist. And it’s the talk about the current business climate in India that’s perhaps responsible for a revolution of sorts.

Move over golf, India has its new networking sport: cricket.
With a large corporate potpourri in attendance at cricket stadia these days, it isn’t difficult to see why the sponsors’, corporate, or VIP boxes, are fast becoming the preferred place for colleagues and business partners to network, while sharing a common passion for the game.

“The atmosphere at the games is electric,” says Holly Harvey, director, business development, at Chocolate Design, the associate sponsor and creative partner of the Rajasthan Royals franchise in the Indian Premier League (IPL). “It’s an excellent way to mix with colleagues and business partners in an informal environment where business isn’t the main priority or focus. Networking comes as a happy byproduct of being there.”

Think high-adrenaline rushes, loud cheers, and high-fives (if you’re rooting for the same team, of course) amid exclusivity and luxury. Everyone seems to be getting the proverbial piece of the action when it comes to sixes, boundaries, wickets, and even making a pitch. “Bonding over a good shot or criticism of a bad ball adds a new dimension to corporate interaction,” says Pradeep Srivastava, head–legal, Max Healthcare, the official health care partner of the Delhi Daredevils.

NOW: Kolkata knight riders co-owner Shah rukh khan (third from right) greets Vijay Mallya (extreme right) and his friends and family, including siddhartha Mallya (extreme left) and deepika Padukone (third from left).
NOW: Kolkata knight riders co-owner Shah rukh khan (third from right) greets Vijay Mallya (extreme right) and his friends and family, including siddhartha Mallya (extreme left) and deepika Padukone (third from left).

Just ask the Bangalore-based OSR Cinemas, pushing its Q Cinemas brand with the Kings XI Punjab franchise in the IPL, about a few crucial business decisions and deliberations. “Of course, there were a few opportunities to crack deals. It’s too premature to disclose, but I’m sure the deal will be done in the coming days,” says a guarded Syed Salim, managing director, Q Cinemas.

Shashin Devsare, executive director, Karbonn Mobiles (the IPL’s official mobile phone partner), agrees. “The matches provided a nice platform for networking and Karbonn got some benefits out of it. However, things are right now at the raw stages and cannot be discussed.”

FROM MUKESH AMBANI, the Reliance Industries chairman and managing director, and owner of the Mumbai Indians franchise; Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairman and managing director of the Biocon group; and Sudha Murthy, the wife of Infosys board chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy), to the Bollywood bandwagon of Shah Rukh Khan (co-owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders); Preity Zinta (co-owner, Kings XI Punjab); Shilpa Shetty (co-owner, Rajasthan Royals); and Deepika Padukone, it’s a field day for those seeking out connections.

Fashion designer Manoviraj Khosla, one of the prominent faces in the Royal Challengers Bangalore owner’s box says he doesn’t network personally, but has his own theory. “You wouldn’t want to network with people in your own box, because you meet them on a regular basis,” he says. “But with access to other boxes, particularly those of the owners and other associates of the opposing team, there’s a great opportunity.”

LEISURE IS ALWAYS at a premium for the folks from India Inc., and while a scheduled round of golf across 18 holes may take a group of business associates up to four-and-a-half hours, a Twenty20 game of cricket is an hour less. “The nature of golf is such that it reveals far more about the person you are with than what happens in a cricket stadium. Corporate boxes in cricket might work as a nice way to say thank you,” says Rama Chawla, deputy general manager, marketing & member relations, DLF Golf & Country Club.

Again, Delhi Golf Club’s corporate membership is offered to companies with an annual turnover of Rs 250 crore and above for manufacturing units, and a minimum of Rs 25 crore annually for consulting companies. The fee works out to Rs 30 lakh plus taxes, for two nominees for a period of five years. In cases of some of the clubs in Kolkata, such as the Tollygunge Club, there is also a long waiting time to become members.

Little wonder then, that companies are ready to fork out Rs 3 lakh per match or Rs 21 lakh for the entire season to book a Platinum Lounge (excluding taxes) at the famous Eden Gardens stadium in Kolkata. Similarly, a seat in the Whyte & Mackay Pavilion (P2) at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore costs Rs 55,000 per IPL game. A perch at the 10-seater corporate boxes in any of the bays, A through P, at the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai comes at Rs 50,000 for an IPL match.

Bulk bookings are the order of the day, whether rewarding distributors, employees, or entertaining clients. “We are sponsoring four IPL teams and the entitlements are different depending upon the levels of sponsorship,” says Deepak Jalan, managing director, Linc Pens. “We also bought thousands of tickets as an incentive to the trade.”

If Ambani proved to be a trendsetter (not surprisingly) by splurging Rs 5 crore on three of the 57 corporate boxes in the renovated Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai during the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, a packed cricketing calendar for India this year promises more. The networking game’s just begun.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter & YouTube to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.