It was the home side who made most of the early running, with a series of crosses testing David Marshall in the Cardiff goal.
The first serious effort on goal arrived after eight minutes when Sebastian Larsson met a cross from Wickham, but his header was straight into the arms of the Cardiff shot-stopper.
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Wickham's fourth Premier League goal of the season arrived after 26 minutes when the powerful forward looped a header into the top corner, with Marshall unable to claw clear.
Wickham had another clear opportunity after 32 minutes when a loose ball fell to the England Under-21 international inside the box, but Juan Cala was across to make a last-ditch challenge.
Moments later, Jack Colback fired just wide of Marshall's post at the pressure continued from the Black Cats.
The match became stretched in the latter stages of the half as the referee was forced to issue a series of yellow cards.
It got worse for Cardiff late in the first period, meanwhile, as Cala was dismissed for pulling Wickham to the ground inside the box.
Borini stepped up to send his penalty into the bottom corner and hand Sunderland a two-goal lead at the break.